Arnold Kling  

Against Teaching Basic Economic Principles

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William Becker argues,


Any professor of economics can identify the field's traditional basic concepts. The trick is to recognize and articulate the shortcomings of simplistic analysis before students rightly dismiss it as irrelevant and then wrongly dismiss all of economics with it...

The dumbing down of economics to the dogmatic preaching of a few simple concepts, principles, and axioms of old misses the excitement of modern day economics and is a deceitful representation of the science of economics and a disservice to students seeking a higher education.


I think that Becker exaggerates the danger of students learning too much basic "dogma" and not enough modern nuances in economics. If Becker is bored with teaching basic economic principles, then he should ask to teach something other than a basic principles course. Let him teach a course called "Exceptions to basic economic principles."

Becker himself seems to commit the error of treating exceptions as if they were refutations. But perhaps elementary logic is something that he also believes does not belong in the curriculum.

Thanks (?) to Timothy Taylor's Journal of Economic Perspectives column for the pointer.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Education



COMMENTS (7 to date)
General Specific writes:

Just as those teaching climate models should point out the shortcomings, economists should do the same in their models and teachings. Seems that simple. If honest reporting is good for the climate modelers, it's good for the economists.

Can't have it both ways.

Bill Stepp writes:

As one example of the poverty of empiricism, at least bad empiricism, consider this quote from William Becker's article:

This defiance is yet another illustration of how students in institutions of higher education benefit from having a research-oriented economist teach an introductory class versus a docent who can only parrot what is in the textbook or on some standardized multiple-choice test. It is the instructor’s job to bring his or her students current thinking and up-to-date debate going on in the science of economics.

Earlier he had agreed with Bill O'Reily's take on Enron, in which O'Reily said that Enron had manipulated the market. But Enron did not manipulate the market, indeed there can hardly be any such thing, except maybe in one that's too small to matter.
What Enron did was inflate its cash flow by manipulating its accounting, then lie about it, after which it berated an analyst on a conference call who had the temerity to ask what the economic purpose of its special purpose entities was. It also misrepresented the capacity of some energy generating facilities, and painted an absurdly optimistic picture of its economic and financial condition in its 2001 annual report. None of this is manipulating the market, which caught on to the deception soon after, aided by a couple of investigative journalists and a bevy of short sellers, and marked its stock price down to reflect its true value.

A lot of other things he says are highly questionable, such as the idea that supply and demand curves don't apply in the cases of medical and legal services, and that supply curves don't appply in the case of an information-based product with "zero" marginal cost. Of course, there is no such thing as zero marginal cost--even the millionth copy of a Windows product has a small postive cost.

I also think that a lot of the empirical work that economists do is hardly free of controversy, and shouldn't be presented in an intro. course. If a teacher wants to point out that there are (or might be) exceptions to some principles, fine. I doubt freshman intro. physics sudents learn about quarks or the Higgs boson (if it exists), even though the popular press has the odd article about them.
Nothing lost either by omitting them.

General Specific writes:

"I doubt freshman intro. physics sudents learn about quarks or the Higgs boson (if it exists), even though the popular press has the odd article about them."

True. But intro physics students are told that the equations of motion they first learn are not sufficient for accurately targeting a projectile e.g. because of the complications from wind resistance. They also learn, for example, that launching a vertical missile from a ship must take into account the motion of the ship and the twisting of the ship's hull.

Introductory students should not be taught all the details of the margins or controversy, but it is important to point out to them that the pure simple ideas that are presented in the classroom are (a) pedagogical and (b) almost completely insufficient when solving real-world problems.

Economics is not logic. It is not a deductive science. It should not be taught as such. That's why the example above of logic is not an appropriate analogy.

Kimmitt writes:

That's true -- the outlines of our models most constantly be precisely limned. Otherwise, our students will apply them to some inappropriate situation, find them useless, and throw them out entirely -- or, worse, grow up to apply them entirely inappropriately and relentlessly pretend that reality does not exist.

Bill Stepp writes:

But intro physics students are told that the equations of motion they first learn are not sufficient for accurately targeting a projectile e.g. because of the complications from wind resistance. They also learn, for example, that launching a vertical missile from a ship must take into account the motion of the ship and the twisting of the ship's hull.

I knew this from my high school physics course and it's derivable from the Newtonian laws of motion, no quarks or relativity about it.

While economics is not strictly a deductive science, let's not throw out the deductive logic part, which frankly I think people like Becker would like to do.
Rothbard says in Man, Economy, and State that economics is mainly deduction from first principles, aided by the empirical observation of the diversity of resources. That last bit speaks volumes, but econometrics is just GIGO.
George Selgin once said that no one was ever persuaded by an econometric study, and he's probably right.

Tracy W writes:

Another infuriating article - what does he want to teach Econ 101 students?

More opportunity cost may make sense. But that's hardly a full course outline.

Mike writes:

While I may only be in Prof. Kling's Econ 100 class I find it very interesting, sometimes it takes the basics to find your interests. Perhaps Becker has forgotten why many people teach.

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