Bryan Caplan  

I Heart Textbook Authors

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The wise Alex Tabarrok just pointed out a fun fact: My best book publicity is coming from textbook authors:


If I taught classes with 800 students, you could cynically argue that these guys are trying to get me to assign their textbooks. But I rarely teach classes with more than 30 students.

Alex's theory, which I immediately endorsed, is that textbook authors are especially conscious of the bizarre gap between what economists say as teachers and what economists say as researchers. As I explain in my book:

[I]ntroductory economics courses still tacitly assume that students arrive with biased beliefs, and try to set them straight, leading to better policy. Paul Samuelson famously remarked that "I don't care who writes a nation's laws — or crafts its advanced treaties — if I can write its economics textbooks." This assumes, as teachers of economics usually do, that students arrive with systematic errors.

What a striking situation: As researchers, economists do not mention systematically biased economic beliefs; as teachers, they take their existence for granted. One might blame ossified textbooks for lagging behind research, or teachers for failing to expose their students to cutting-edge work. But the hypothesis that people hold systematically biased beliefs about economics has not been falsified; it has barely been tested.


While writing this post, I've realized that I omitted something important from my Acknowledgements. Alongside everyone else, I should have said: "Let me also thank the textbook authors of economics, for keeping the idea of systematically biased beliefs alive long after it was banished from the journals." Well, better late than never: Thanks, textbook authors. You're doing good while (hopefully) doing well.

Which reminds me. I end my Acknowledgements with this line: "My apologies to anyone I missed. Can I make it up to you at our next lunch?" Consider that a standing lunch offer to any econ textbook author passing through Fairfax.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Bill Millan writes:

The most important Econ book that needs to be written could be titled "The Eight Most Dangerous Economic Ideas for High School Graduates."

It would consist of the eight most common fallacies that you find entry level college students have about the subject. I suspect that they have them because their HS Social Science Teachers were all Socialists, or at best, Populists.

Use the word "dangerous" in the title because that is the top selling book for kids right now. :>)

Barkley Rosser writes:

Actually some of the more egregious factual mistakes believed by students, and the general population for that matter, are biases of the Right rather than the Left. Thus, we have wildly inordinate numbers of people who think that foreign aid and welfare are the largest items in the federal budget.

Also, it is almost universally believed that if nothing is done about social security and it "goes bankrupt," then the payments to retirees from the system will be lower in real terms than they are currently, assuming the mainline projections come to pass and the system is not changed. In fact, while there would be a cut in payments to 71% of what they were before the "bankruptcy," that would be a cut from over 170% of current payments in real terms.

Another one is that high tax rates must mean that the economy will perform terribly, with basically none of the students knowing that the top marginal income tax rate in the US between 1940 and 1964 was over 90%, when the GDP grew more rapidly than it has since 1981, when the top rate has not exceeded 50%.

And, outside of economics we have the large numbers of people who believe that Sadddam was behind 9/11, a belief that seems to be the main fuel behind the campaign of Rudy Giuliani. And, I will not go too far in talking about popular beliefs regarding evolution...

Barkley Rosser writes:

And, while we are at it, and just to pick up on one of Arnold's areas of interest, the overwhelming majority of students and people are completely unaware of how lousy is the US performance in life expectancy and infant mortality compared to the rest of the world, nor how much more we pay for this wonderful performance than do those elsewhere.

Bill writes:

And then there are people like Barkley Rosser, who thinks that comparing life expectancy and infant mortality rates of a huge and diverse nation like the US with small and much more homogeneous nations is legitimate.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Bill,

We still look prettty pathetic when you aggregate over some of these others into groups. So, we still do not look so good against the EU as a whole or Northeast Asia as a whole. Minnesota is not too bad, but even it (the best state) is behind a lot of countries on life expectancy and infant mortality. And, there is simply no comparing costs: we are nearly 50% higher than our nearest competitors, Norway, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, and you do not get any improvement on that stat by either aggregating up to larger foreign groups or disaggregating down to the state level in the US.

BTW, I am probably not invited to lunch as it looks like only authors of Principles textbooks count, and mine is a comparative systems one, quite aside from the fact that I say the wrong things, boo hoo hoo...

Regarding pre-college econ ed, maybe high school teachers have a statist bias, but I can tell you that the materials that are used at the elementary and high school levels are completely under the control of the Business Roundtable and the Chambers of Commerce, literally. They fund them, and they are probably more mindlessly pro-free market and anti-state than pretty much anything out there. I suspect that the various principles texts being cooked up by various George Masonites will not be so perfervid in their single-minded, ideological tub-thumping along pro-laissez faire lines. Business Good, Government Bad. Duh, Thumb Suck.

Bill writes:

Barkley,

Simple stats are like sound bites--no substance. Do most people know that we spend far more on pre-natal care than many countries, thus, possibly reducing the miscarriage rate, which can lead to higher infant mortality rates? Could it be the Americans have a higher tolerance for risky behavior, thus, leading to a lower life expectancy? It is simply not valid to blame the method of providing health care and ignore cultural differences. Simple stats are used and abused all the time. I'm not saying the US is better; I'm saying that simple stats don't really prove anything.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Bill,

Certainly there are limits to what simple stats prove. But then, did I use the simple stats to prove anything? I think the only thing I used all of my simple stats for was to show that non-trivial amounts of misinformation that most people in the US believe are not biased towards a left-wing view, but may be biased towards a right-wing one, although it may not be the case that there is any clear ideological bias inherent in the stats about medical care, even though the US system has some very distinctive characteristics differentiating it from all the other ones in high income countries (hack, cough).

Bill writes:

Barkley,

I'm be willing to make this deal with socialist health care lovers:

Let's have a real free market for, say, 10 years. This means no government subsidies (50% is paid by taxes; that is, the system is half socialized). And no government regulation of health care. If the system is not significantly better than it is today, we'll go single-payer. Any takers?

Americo writes:

i would just like to thank you post giving text book authors some love. As balanced & astute as any blog entry i've read lately.

http://ThunkDifferent.com

dearieme writes:

Are there any University disciplines left where undergraduate teaching and research bear much resemblance to each other?

Shadow Hunter writes:

I was in one small class where the professor gave each student the amount of his royalties in cash to each student because we were using his text book. A real classy thing to do in my book.

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