“Economist”

Published today at The Upshot: What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? by Wren McDonald. I want to pick up on a couple of points raised since they really get at things I’ve written and obsessed about a lot over the years.

I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s premise that sociology—in particular ethnography—and other academic disciplines can bring just as much or more relevant knowledge and expertise to public policy debates as economics can. I’m going to get a bit depressing in a minute here so I don’t mean this to come across as a backhanded compliment or something. I do mean it seriously. My criticisms here are directed at very small words in the article that aren’t really about the article at all, but about us, economists, and our relationship to various publics, our professional PR, our toxic guild label. On the actual content of the article, the premise, the spirit, the recommendations I am quite on board.

Alright, let’s do this.

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Loaded words and modeling

Here is a nice review by Burton Malkiel of “Models Behaving Badly” by Emanuel Derman. The models of the title are from the world of finance: how are assets priced?

I am a layperson to the world of finance, so I find it difficult how to apportion “blame” for financial crises on faulty models or fraudulent inputs to them. Certainly history is littered with financial crises, so the influence of modern modeling alone cannot explain everything.

In any case, I just want to take this opportunity for a small lament that the beautiful act of modeling must be dragged through the mud by a financial crisis in this way. It would be fair to say that I am almost fanatical about the virtues of the concept and practice of modeling. I believe that modeling is inescapable. The world is complicated. Our senses deliver so much information, our mental apparatus must work so hard, that to process the world around us is to model. It is too much to ask that we understand everything; we have to understand a version of everything that is not so complex as the world.

This is also why economics works with models. We don’t have a scale replica of the world that we can play with to see how this affects that. We have to build a scale replica from scratch, using our best judgment to push insistently at the boundary between complexity (so that we can understand our model) and usefulness (so that we can make something from it).

In a way we are much luckier in economics than in finance. Progress in economic theory comes as our models are improved upon and refined, but we are more able to iterate forward because our models are not embedded in a Leviathan global finance industry that depends on their continued function. Creative destruction of old models is hard when the house comes down with them.

With all this in mind I want to highlight this passage from the review:

He sums up his key points about how to keep models from going bad by quoting excerpts from his “Financial Modeler’s Manifesto” (written with Paul Wilmott), a paper he published a couple of years ago. Among its admonitions: “I will always look over my shoulder and never forget that the model is not the world”; “I will not be overly impressed with mathematics”; “I will never sacrifice reality for elegance”; “I will not give the people who use my models false comfort about their accuracy”; “I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many beyond my apprehension.”

How many of these will I accept for economics? Certainly the first; the model is not reality. Certainly the second; math is helpful in model-building but is not the point of model-building. The fourth and fifth are hard to argue with.

The third I don’t like. Everything that we do must sacrifice reality. The test of a model is not its realism (a realistic model airplane would be no fun at all). All models are unrealistic because all models are wrong. Of course elegance is not the test of a model either, except that an elegant model is one that illuminates a relationship in a clear way by cutting to the heart of what matters.

Anyway, the point is that I think that “model” is not a dirty word. I feel possessive about “modeling” much the same way as I feel possessive about “rationality” – what they mean to me is important and wonderful and I hate to see them sullied by misrepresentation that stems from their overlap with the real-world ideas of modeling and rationality. I wish that all of the things like these could have their own words that are not borrowed from natural language.

More investment banking schadenfreude

I have to mention a New York Times op-ed in which Roger Cohen can barely contain his glee at the fate of the “masters of the universe” who may now be seeking alternate employement. I sympathize:

When I taught a journalism course at Princeton a couple of years ago, I was captivated by the bright, curious minds in my class. But when I asked students what they wanted to do, the overwhelming answer was: “Oh, I guess I’ll end up in i-banking.”

Try teaching economics, sir! We’re the ones who really get to see squandered potential: in economics classes, it’s beyond overwhelming. And get this:
According to the Harvard Crimson, 39 percent of work-force-bound Harvard seniors this year are heading for consulting firms and financial sector companies (or were in June). That’s down from 47 percent — almost half the job-bound class — in 2007.

Isn’t that a little bit tragic? Is the only thing we can offer our smartest young people a career in consulting and banking? Is it the only thing our smart young people want to do?

Easy money

Here are some numbers on average starting salary by college major from the Wall Street Journal. If we want to understand what drives people to study economics, part of the reason must be found here.

So, there’s economics, a proud 4th with a not-too-shabby $43,419. First of all, being that I don’t believe economics is vocational, and that I think we don’t place a very high premium on intellectual excellence in the teaching of economics, this is already, to me, a bit weird.

The easy, and I think true, point to make is that if we do some kind of perceived difficulty/scariness of subject times starting salary, economics will win hands down. If all I care about is cash and how hard my degree will be, I doubt I’m choosing math or engineering over economics. It’s easy money.

For once, I’m going to try to use some economics to talk about this. Labor and skills are scarce resources; salaries for graduates in the hard sciences are understandably high, since these skills are valuable and not so very many people study those subjects. But I see exactly zero reason why economics is different, in that light, from management science or history, for example. Does majoring in economics change your abilities in the same way that studying computer science makes you a better code-writer?

Where are the economists going, anyway? From the article:

Scott Bell, who plans to graduate this year from New York University with a degree in East Asian studies, was looking for a job in financial services or consulting. The 21-year-old was unable to land interviews with major investment banks, despite a strong grade-point average and an internship in the Tokyo office of global management consultancy Bain & Co.

East Asian studies would, in this context, seem to be more valuable than economics in preparing someone for a career in financial services or consulting. Economists seem to be facing stiff competition in the labor market for consulting and banking, and of course they are no more qualified for such jobs than anyone else who is literate and numerate, which might itself be contributing to the premium for economists.

I struggle not to fall back on the familiar signaling story for education. I said this a while ago:

Perhaps economics just looks good, perhaps even because it’s confused with finance or business. Perhaps we, the educators, are complicit in the charade because it brings high enrollments and money. There is no incentive to change the program, even if the core is rotten. It’s like an asset bubble – the value of economics as a major, the value of economics to a university, to economics departments, goes up and up and up, but at the bottom there is nothing.

I strongly recommend this short article, “What jobs do economics majors get?”. Listen to this:

Employers are happy to hire students with undergraduate degrees in Economics. They are often looking for good mathematics skills, good writing skills, ability to use a word processing program such as Word and a spreadsheet program such as Excel. Some jobs require skill in using a statistics program – these are appropriate for people who did well in or liked ECON 3254. Computer programming skills are definitely a plus. Almost any programming language will appeal to most employers, although some have a preference for “C” and “Visual Basic.”

OK, so employers want people who can read, write, do math and use a computer. Statistics is good. Computer programming is awesome. This has nothing to do with economics. And lo:

The important thing to understand about finding a job with an economics degree is that employers are less interested in whether you have a specific skill, like being able to find the intersection of the supply and demand curve, than they are in the package of skills that people with economics degrees have. Secret: most of the skills which people use on the job they learn on the job.

Cool, so all the stuff we teach in undergraduate economics is useless to employers (astonishment!), yet people study economics in record numbers. What’s the disconnect here? Is it really just a house of cards, floating on air? What do we teach economics students to do that other students can’t? What do employers think we teach? Back in the original article, this makes more sense:

A breakdown by industry shows that starting salaries for accounting and finance grads rose by a mere 1.9%, while business-administration and management graduates saw increases of less than 1%. The average offer for computer-science majors, on the other hand, rose 7.9%. Engineering graduates saw an average increase of 5.7%.

I’m not down on economics as a field of study. I think it can be interesting and multidisciplinary and philosophical and relevant and topical. However, it seems sometimes to all to be tailored to these numbers: you can earn big bucks by majoring in economics, and economics classes become just a crappy thing you have to do to get there. Everyone’s happy with the status quo.

Is economics vocational?

Being that we have not the faintest idea why people choose to take economics courses, this will be a difficult question to answer: is economics vocational? What exactly would an economics education prepare you for?

My stereotypical economics major wants to be an investment banker or something of the sort (again, pure prejudice, since no evidence exists). I argued a while ago that maybe – maybe – the sub-discipline of finance could possibly be considered vocational for those types. Economics courses will be of no practical help, although I suppose the civics that passes for Econ 101 might help with terminology. My advice: go to a school that will let you major in business.

So: what would an economics education prepare you for? To be more explicit: “if I major in economics, what will I be able to do, or be better at, that I couldn’t otherwise have done, or done so well?” Some suggestions, and justifications.

Statistician or data analyst. Econometrics is usually a requirement for all economics majors. Since the computing revolution, economists have lovingly embraced statistical analysis as a way to coax the relationships in the real world out of data. Theoretical and practical data preparation and analysis will be practiced in econometrics courses, and any course falling under the foul name of “applied economics”.

Policy wonk. Economics can inform argument and debate about policy. This is especially true of economics courses that straddle positivist analysis and normative debate, such as public economics. The purely esoteric economics courses might not be the ideal ones to make this point.

Philosopher. Economics contains a lot of points of philosophical debate. “Welfare economics”, which tries to discuss and provide metrics for normative goal-setting, is a particularly rich field for flights of fancy. The realness of economics does not take it out of the philosophical world; it’s elusiveness holds it in.

Applied mathematician. I’m very doubtful about this one, but here it is anyway. Economics can’t teach you math. Plus, economists are like the chimps jumping up and down to reach the fruit when we could just ask the giraffe – it feels like any mathematical or technical problem we have would be immeasurably simpler for a mathematician or computer scientist to solve than it is for the economist. Nevertheless, it may well be the case that studying economics could make a person better at applying mathematical methods to the tangible.

Academic economist. Our courses are taught with the same positivist motivation demanded in the research conducted by academic economists. The “applied” courses accomplish this for the type of researcher who does data work, and the theoretical courses accomplish it for the type of researcher who does, well, theory work. I’m worried by the lack of diversity in the models and applications we present – it doesn’t reflect the range and power of economics – but nevertheless, the method we present is, for better or worse, the same as the method we use.

Historian / person-of-the-world. No idea what I should be calling this, but an economics education should (should) include some history of thought and history of economic policy. One of my favorite college courses was one where we took one simple, flexible model of a country’s economy – really simple, just pictures and words – and used it to debate the economic history of the 20th century. Whatever that type of knowledge-for-its-own-sake is called or is useful for, I’m throwing it in this list.

I’ve kind of exhausted my ideas. Now, at least here in American colleges – or maybe just this American college, though I suspect not – “academic economist” gets far, far, far, far too much play. Far more than anything else on my list or anything else that could be on the list. I would be utterly astonished if the non-existent evidence on why people take economics courses showed that they all wanted to do write academic articles in economics. Astonished and miserable. Yet, here we are, in a situation where economics courses are most commonly run without philosophy, history, politics, debate.

Academics do economic science in a vacuum without these things. It has to be that way, because we want to isolate facts as well as we can isolate them. That doesn’t mean that we should be teaching economics that way. It could be so rich. Yes, the science can be interesting, but so can the history of the world, the intellectual foundations of the discipline, the policy debate built on the evidence. I’d hate to think we’re robbing our students of these things.

Perhaps the answer, then, is that economics is not fundamentally vocational. Aside from my pet issue of economics-abused-as-civics, we have a problem with economics teaching if it is trying to pretend to prepare people for something specific. It can surely help a person develop skills, but at least as important, and probably more interesting for the average student, is teaching economics as an intellectual pursuit for its own sake. We know what would make our courses more interesting (not the same thing as pandering, I hasten to add), more intellectually exciting, yet we pull back. Is it because we believe we’re training all our students to be academics?

Money. Again.

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. No preamble:

“But there is a much bigger problem, one that challenges the very foundation of the presumed link between per-capita G.D.P. and economic welfare. That’s the assumption, traditional in economic models, that absolute income levels are the primary determinant of individual well-being.”

It’s déjà vu all over again, as they say. I’ve challenged this before (see here for GDP, here for money and here to hammer the point home), and of course money-centrism remains misconception number one about the practice of economics, especially the type of welfare economics the article is talking about. Again, I can only reiterate that agnosticism over people’s likes and dislikes is a tenet of the practice of economics, and assumption and approximation only serve to make our questions answerable.

Getting off that familiar track, this instance is actually especially fun because it comes from a New York Times article which begins:

“DOES money buy happiness? This week, Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, will join a long line of people who have taken serious stabs at trying to answer that thorny question. He will hold a hearing exploring whether traditional economic measures like per-capita income accurately capture people’s sense of well-being.”

Strange how Senators spend their time, really. Surreality aside, Robert Frank, the author of the article, does cite some neat hypotheses on the money issue, so I’ll try to forget the economics equals money lament for a second. The object of investigation is how income inequality affects general wellbeing.

“[surveys find] that when everyone’s income grows at about the same rate, average levels of happiness remain the same. Yet at any given moment, the pattern is that wealthy people are happier, on average, than poor people. Together, these findings suggest that relative income is a much better predictor of well-being than absolute income.”

That’s probably bad news for the Senator. I propose Dorgan’s Razor: to make everyone happy, make each person richer than everyone else. Oh dear. Is that a depressing impossibility result? If everyone had the same income, would we all be miserable because we were all no better off than anyone else? Seems a little extreme. Perhaps that points to the weirdness of the money metric generally.

It’s not all bad news, though:

“Yet in many other categories, greater levels of absolute income clearly promote well-being, even in the richest societies. The economist Benjamin Friedman has found that higher rates of G.D.P. growth are associated with increased levels of social tolerance and public support for the economically disadvantaged. Richer countries also typically have cleaner environments and healthier populations than their poorer counterparts.”

I see this as broadly similar to the importance of economic growth for the poor; whatever the value of GDP or income as a measure of individual wellbeing, it’s surely the case that societies with more resources can simply afford more, in the truest sense. Those societies can afford more social spending, more sacrifice of stuff for environment, more health; the equivalent of poor countries being able to afford more when less people have to break their backs in subsistence farming.

It’s also related to things like the pension “crisis” in aging countries like America, Japan and Britain. The more stuff there is to go round, the less acute the problem of providing “enough” for both the workers and the retired becomes, regardless of how many of each type there are. Further still, it’s related to philanthropy, which this article contorts itself to provide an evolutionary explanation for. Philanthropy on the Gates Foundation scale cannot exist without affluence.

Senator Dorgan should be applauded for asking the question of what the goal of GDP growth really means for the wellbeing of the population. A richer set of goals could well be a good thing; perhaps we would be willing to sacrifice some income for greater equality, a healthier environment or the alleviation of global poverty. It’s important, though, to ask about the value of affluence not just for the individual but on a large scale too.

Why don’t we understand economics education?

Increasingly preoccupying my thoughts recently is the remarkable fact that the economics profession doesn’t really know anything about how undergraduate courses are received by the students who take them.

Unquestionably, the most common type of research into undergraduate education is the type like this, this, or this (sorry to link to protected academic articles): teaching methods. The semi-famous series by William Becker and Michael Watts derides “chalk and talk” in favor of more creative methods of lecturing. In “Teaching Economics at the Start of the 21st Century: Still Chalk-and-Talk”, those authors conclude:

“In contrast to the passive learning environment that characterizes the teaching of economics, class discussion and other forms of active learning, rather than extensive lecturing, are now the dominant forms of instruction in other fields of higher education.”

I agree in principle that it’s no fun to try to learn – really learn – any subject by sitting in a lecture, but goodness me, “active learning”? How about “devote some time to reading a variety of books and material on the subject you’re learning”? How about “sit down with colleagues or experts and talk and listen”? In my life, those have been the most effective ways of getting information and understanding into my head. Am I alone? To me, that’s active learning, and it doesn’t require fancy technology or a three ring circus, just a good library and good educators with time to devote to small groups of students. Lectures, especially to large classes, must naturally be presented without a lot of nuance.

The cult of the classroom experiment, or demonstration, or performance art, or audience participation, is not, however, the real issue. By far the bigger problem is that we have no idea – repeat, no idea – what students want, expect or get from economics courses. Why do they enroll? Why don’t they enroll? Why do they drop out? Why do they major in economics? What do they think economics is about, before, during, after they take economics course? What if they never do? Who do we lose?

Why don’t we have the first idea about the answers to those questions? Have we ever asked? The mind boggles. We’re try to patch up the wreckage of the lecture system, when all the while we might be sailing to entirely the wrong place in our leaky boat. Forget the method for a moment – what are we even actually teaching?

In a separate article to the one I quoted up above, William Becker’s “Teaching Economics in the 21st Century” says:

“Media headlines scream the need to understand macroeconomics. At a minimum, courses in macroeconomics should enable students to have a greater understanding of the economic news as it appears in the Economist, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal than those without an education in economics.”

I’ve covered this ground before. How about, at a minimum, we teach economics properly? How about, at a minimum, we kick civics into a course where it belongs and actually show students what economics can be, and what it is? Compromising the integrity of an entire field of hundreds of years of intellectual thought with political, philosophical and moral implications so that people can understand the Wall Street Journal? Who wants to understand the Wall Street Journal?! From the same article:

“Departments of economics have two powerful reasons to care about improving the quality of their teaching. First, the contest for resources within institutions of higher education implies that the number of majors and enrollments matter…. Whether students will take more courses in economics or choose to major in the field because of improved teaching is hard to say, but, at least, improved teaching is unlikely to hurt enrollments!”

Hilarious, I’m sure. I’m kidding: it’s sickening. Can we entertain the notion that perhaps higher enrollments are not compatible with improved teaching? We are supposed to be running an institute of excellence in learning and thought. Whoring for enrollment is disgusting.

Do as I say, not as I do

Another Arts & Letters tipoff today. The teaser for the article reads:

“Do professors indoctrinate students by expressing a political ideology in the classroom?”

Similar to what I was talking about the other day when I was arguing that ideology leaks into economics courses when we start using them as civics lessons. The article being referred is from the Chronicle of Higher Education, asking why academia is liberal. Yesterday I reported a survey that found majority liberal political views among economics grad students; it’s not controversial to suggest that university and college faculties are predominantly more liberal than the population.

The article also mentions the real source of the Arts & Letters teaser quote: a study by Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner called, delightfully, “My Professor is a Partisan Hack” (you can read the whole study (pdf) here). That study tried to figure out how students perceive the political leaning of their professors, and how similarity with the students’ own views affected their enjoyment and perception of their courses.

The authors asked students to complete course evaluations that, among other questions, asked them to identify their professors’ political and ideological views, and to report their own confidence in their answers. The surveys were all done after political science courses. The Chronicle article summarizes one of the big results:

“their research showed that students were turned off when professors expressed views that were contrary to their own…”

Perhaps not surprising. The article goes on:

“Mr. Maranto asked the Woessners to contribute a chapter to his book on why conservatives don’t pursue doctorates. Typically, he says, there are a few answers to the question. Liberals say conservatives want to make more money than professors earn, while conservatives argue that they get less encouragement from professors than liberal students do.”

I would love to do a similar study for economics courses. Some interesting questions:

  • Can students confidently identify political ideology of economics professors? Should they be able to, given the supposed neutrality of what we teach?
  • Would students correctly guess that the majority of economists identify themselves as liberal? Does the content of economics courses skew this perception of the professors’ beliefs?
  • Are non-conservatives turned off by economics courses?
  • Do students see economics professors as spreading ideology? If so, is the ideology consistent with the professors’ beliefs? Is it consistent with the students’ perception of the professors’ beliefs?

We need to know how the teaching of economics meshes with the students beliefs and opinions. I strongly believe that the economic method is capable of accommodating and being used by people of any political or ideological belief, but I’d be astonished if such a survey of economics students revealed that this was in fact the case.

Here’s my pitch: do economics professors indoctrinate students by expressing ideology in the classroom? If they do, I believe they are committing a far graver sin than political science professors who do the same. We can separate policy debate from opinion in economics; we can separate out method from our beliefs. Do we?

The Woessner article concludes:

“professors may be well advised to strive for political balance—vigorously challenging students’ viewpoints and presenting multiple perspectives without identifying their own political orientations.”

If we could accomplish something like this in economics – value-free and varied economic method, plus lively ideological debate on economic policy – we might get economics courses that are interesting, useful and diverse. That would beat the mangling of positive and normative economics that too often passes for a real economics course.

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.

Teaching

Just a quick footnote to the economic man stuff. Talking about Wikipedia probably gives me a credibility problem, but the page I referred to yesterday to is actually pretty impressive, and has some good points worth mentioning.

“One problem with making the Homo economicus model more sophisticated is that sometimes the model becomes tautologically true, i.e., true by definition. If someone has a “taste” for variety, for example, it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish economic rationality from irrationality. In this case, the Homo economicus model may not add any new information at all to our economic understanding.”

Indeed: anything can be rationalized. The whole sorry debate about economic man could probably be avoided if we understand that “the Homo economicus model” isn’t supposed to add new information to our economic understanding. The economist’s ultimate goal is not to figure out how people behave – that’s just something we have to address along the way to describing things. Economic man is no more of an end than the super-supercomputer I invoked yesterday.

However, my favorite bit from the page is this nice little dig:

“These criticisms [of economic man] are especially valid to the extent that the professor asserts that the simplifying assumptions are true and/or uses them in a propagandistic way.”

No argument here. Economics teaching is usually depressing. Why is the first thing students of economics see a supply and demand diagram? How does that help them understand what we’re trying to do, what we assume? How, more importantly, is that value free? How can that separate economics from capitalism, money, markets? How can that be economics?

It is primarily when targeting the limiting assumptions made in constructing undergraduate models that the criticisms listed above are valid.”

Imagine hundreds, thousands of students come to you every year. You can show them why your subject is exciting, what it can do philosophically and practically, ask big questions, educate an astonishing number of diverse students, make the next generation of economists good scientists while allowing all normative opinion to flourish around the argument. You can take students with all preconceptions, with all beliefs, and send those students away in their diversity of thought as economists. The next generation of economists would have a fighting chance of being value-free, and the debate wouldn’t be “us versus the economists”, but just “us”.

Hundreds of thousands of students do come to Econ 101 every year. We show them a supply and demand diagram and reinforce all prejudices. We present economics as an answer. How many minds do we lose? How can we tolerate the waste?