Arnold Kling  

Teaching Economics as Common Sense

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Walter Williams writes

Professors James Gwartney (Florida State University), Richard Stroup (Montana State University) and Dwight Lee (Georgia University), three longtime colleagues of mine, have recently published "Common Sense Economics." It's a small book, less than 200 pages, that addresses a serious economist dereliction of duty: making our subject understandable to the ordinary person.

...Incentives matter under socialism, too. In the former USSR, managers and employees were compensated by the number of tons of glass they produced. Factories produced glass so thick one could hardly see through it. The rules were changed so that compensation was made according to square meters of glass produced. Factories produced glass so thin that it broke easily.

As much as I respect Greg Mankiw, Paul Romer, and other leading economists who write textbooks, I do believe that the established tradition results in books that at best serve a tiny sliver of the most mathematically intuitive students. Finding a way to communicate with the rest is a much bigger challenge. I admire the authors of Common Sense Economics for making the effort.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)

I think most economics textbooks are math heavy for one and only one reason - to confuse people. If you just walked up to people and explained basic economic principles with what they really mean, you'd look retarded. Imagine what it would be like.

Economist: "Hey, you know, when there's a whole lot of something about - it gets cheap. But when you start running out, it gets expensive."

Pedestrian: "Well, DUH."

Economist: "And when lots of people want something, the price goes up, but if only a few people want it the price goes down."

Pedestrian: "I believe I already said DUH."

Essentially, I believe textbooks complicate and obfuscate economic principles for one and only one reason: to look like a complicated and valuable science. Otherwise, people think economics is some kind of special-needs kid brother to the other sciences, and that causes economists to lose status among their fellow scientists. Since economics textbooks are written by economists, they're simply pursuing their own best interests.

Hey! That's a basic economic principle! So say it with me: well, DUH.

Carl Marks writes:

This is at least one area where the Austrians might have a point, though I am not as cynical to the reasons why math is used. Math is seen as a very formal logic system, and if you want to lay out ideas very coherently math can be a good way to do it if your English is lacking.

I found that Blanchard's Macro textbook shows exactly how math should be used in textbooks. The math is strong and always present, but it is always a supplement to the verbal logic, and is always explained thoroughly.

Nicholson's Intermediate Micro book is a good example of math gone bad.

Giant Step writes:

Have you read Mankiw's book? It is very, very light on math. And I'm only referring to the intermediate one, since I've not even read his principles text.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I have not seen this recent book, and maybe it is great. Gwartney and Stroup have long had a pretty successful, fairly conventional (if a bit more libertarian oriented) principles textbook.
However, while I all for being as clear as possible, I think a major problem right now is a massive trend to dumbing down principles textbooks. I suspect that at least part of this is due to a decline of the quality of math education at the K-12 levels. It is certainly my observation that while official measures of "quality" are supposedly going up (SAT scores), students in general seem to be less and less competent, especially in math. So, we are being forced to dumb down.

Not all concepts in econ are just "common sense intuitive." A serious example is the law of comparative advantage. It can be made to be intuitive, but it takes some skill and effort. An awful lot of people think that it is absolute advantage that is intuitive, and that is one reason an awful lot of people support protectionisim against Chinese imports.

Zhu Benben writes:

It's not the math that is the problem. It's simply some authors can't write. If you don't give them math, they still write bad english. Don't blame math, blame the authors. English can be difficult to understand too. Don't be silly to think that English is any good than math in expressing difficult ideas.

On the other hand, it's left unanswered why somebody publish and somebody buy badly written books. Maybe it's just a moot debate. Maybe just like taste. You know, there is not the perfect sweetness. Somebody like it sweeter, somebody like it less sweet. Somebody understand symbols much better than somebody else. Etc.

So, this thread is stupid. Haha. :)

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