Tag Archives: pedagogy

Economics Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Economics is a genuinely exciting subject to study. But introductory economics classes are genuinely boring.

Maybe they’re designed that way to weed out the weak. But that means fewer people are learning the economic way of thinking. This is a mistake. Everyone should know at least the basics.

I’m not talking comparative statics or Edgeworth boxes, or any of that nonsense that scares off lay people. Leave that to the academics. I’m talking fundamentals. The stuff that everyday people can understand and use. Such as the fact that people respond to incentives, and by being aware of that, you can read a lot into why people behave the way they do.

Or the role that the price system plays in conveying information and affecting behavior. Or the fact that millions of Parisians and New Yorkers are fed each and every day, even though nobody is coordinating the process. Which really is a miracle if you think about it.

That’s why Bill Easterly is one of my favorite economists. Tasked with teaching Econ 1 this semester, he’s decided not to follow the usual (boring) pedagogy:

Sorry, I’m not all that concerned with “how individuals, blah, blah, optimal choices, blah, blah, scarcity, blah, blah…” I’m concerned why some people are so rich and other people are so poor. I want to understand why some economies work and others don’t, and why even the ones that work still don’t work for everyone. I want to understand how other Americans and I got 64 times richer than our ancestors.

I want to know why Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, makes $140,000 a day, and why some rock-breakers I met in Ghana make $1 a day. I think a differential of 140,000 times is pretty important to understand…

Economics principles are a set of tools that have evolved to transcend scarcity into abundance. When students use these principles to solve problems in an Econ class, they are recreating the process of historical problem solving in which poor people discovered the principles to become rich people.

If there were more professors like Easterly, maybe economics would have a livelier reputation, not to mention more students. The subject matter is the very stuff of life. But the average lecturer’s performance is the very stuff of death. Or at least of sleep.

Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan

I’m a bit late on this, but Carl Sagan would have turned 75 on November 9. The Skeptic Society’s Michael Shermer has set up a nice tribute to him.

The thing I admire most about Carl Sagan isn’t his academic credentials, impressive though they were. It’s that he wasn’t afraid to be a popularizer. In fact, he embraced it. He has been an inspiration for what I hope to accomplish in my own professional life.

Will Durant’s book The Story of Philosophy is credited with introducing more people to its subject than any other book. What Will Durant did for philosophy (and later, with his wife Ariel Durant, history), Carl Sagan did for astronomy.

Some pointy-nosed academics looked down on Sagan for pandering to the masses. But Sagan did more in his too-short life to actually educate people than the lot of them combined. How many of those same disdainful academics were inspired to forge a career in science because of Carl Sagan? For a subject as esoteric as cosmology, this is no small achievement.

People who work in economics or public policy would do well to pay attention not just to what Carl Sagan did, but to how he did it. Intellectuals from all disciplines should follow the sterling example set by Carl Sagan.