01 May 2011

Gigantic Waste of Time

Needless to say, a course can be valuable even if unpleasant. Unfortunately, however, most students seem to emerge from introductory economics courses without having learned even the most important basic principles. According to one recent study, their ability to answer simple economic questions several months after leaving the course is not measurably different from that of people who never took a principles course.
What explains such abysmal performance? One problem is the encyclopedic range typical of introductory courses. As the Nobel laureate George J. Stigler wrote more than 40 years ago, "The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student no basic economic logic with which to analyze the economic questions he will face as a citizen." [Emphasis added.  HT: Vox Day.]
When I took my introductory Econ course in college (nearly a year ago), I quickly saw that I was going to be the only student in that class getting an A.  The reason for this was due to a) having a good professor who was a terrible teacher and b) having a textbook that devoted more space to graphs than to words.

The problem with the professor wasn’t simply that she was a neo-Keynesian.  Rather, the problem was that she simply couldn’t explain fundamental economic concepts in a way that her students could understand.  The money multiplier effect was explained as an equation.  Supply and demand was explained as an equation.  Price elasticity was explained as an equation.

Of course, virtually all economic rules and relationships can be expressed mathematically, but the professor made the mistake of thinking that real-world examples exist to explain the models when, in fact, it is the other way around.  As such, all classes started with theory and occasionally were related to the real world, leaving all my classmates confused and exasperated.  The professor would have done well to read Adam Smith’s classic treatise, for the whole discipline of economics (and, really, all other scientific disciplines) exists to explain the real world by using simplified models.  There’s a reason the old joke about economists goes “I know it works in the real world, but does it work in theory”.

Since I had been reading economic works since I was fourteen, I was incredibly overprepared for this class.  So, I ended up tutoring half my classmates, which turned out to be quite lucrative.  In fact, I got Student Services to bend the rules for me so I could tutor my classmates.  I also functioned, essentially, as a co-professor because I was called upon quite often to explain various economic principles in ways that my classmates could understand.  This had the bonus effect of ensuring that I got the numbers of every girl in that class, which led to a couple of dates.  It was great time in my life.

The problem with the textbook was that it was too convoluted.  I had difficulty following along, but only because my eyes would glaze over from boredom.  The book was needlessly technical, which was off-putting to most students, and most “real-world” examples were too hypothetical for most students to relate to.  Most of my classmates would come into class complaining about how they read the book multiple times and still didn’t grasp it.

I ended up drafting a proposal to use Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics as the class textbook in order to make it easier for future students to make sense of this relatively simple science.  I have no idea where this proposal stands as of now. 

The saddest part of modern economics courses is that they take such a vital and easily understood subject and dress it up in highly technical jargon so as to render it incomprehensible to students.  I suppose this enables professors to feel smarter for grasping something so difficult, but the purpose of school is to teach students how to be relatively proficient in a variety of disciplines; the purpose is not supposed to be providing teachers and professors a way to stroke their own egos.  And if schools are not going to make an effort to ensure that economics is taught an in easily understood manner, they may as well not offer it at all.


  1. In The Blank Slate, economics is one of three fields Pinker says absolutely needs more attention - more credit hours. (Another one is statistics, and the third I think is basic human biology, including genetics.) Where Pinker goes further than others is by specify what he would deƫmphasize to free up curricular space: he mentions geometry and literature.

    He is also realistic about the chances for such a reform: "Who wants to say they are against literature?"

  2. Interesting... I haven't read Pinker's work (I gave it a shot but just couldn't get interested in it at the time), but now I think I'll take another crack at it.

    At any rate, I'm inclined to agree with his assessment, particularly statistics. I'd be inclined to include probability theory as well, particularly of the Mandelbrotian variety. The main thing is ensuring that students understand the basic principles behind these areas of study before moving on to the more technical aspects of study, which was the main failure of economics departments.

  3. Econ-as-math is for people who are actually going to study economics. And introductory courses are supposed to bore the people who are going to study the subject in depth, in order to provide basic coverage to those who aren't. Sounds like they got it exactly backwards.

  4. @Matt- That was the worst part of the whole deal at the college where I attend. Economics isn't offered as a major, so there isn't a single point in making the 100-level econ course so complex and model-driven.