Less is More

We had the honor of hosting Robert Frank for a talk at the Gokhale Institute the other day.

There’s a lot to learn from that talk (duh), but there was one particular thing he mentioned in that talk that I want to focus on today:

When it comes to teaching principles of economics, less is more.

I’m paraphrasing here, and what you’re about to read is my interpretation of his point – but when it comes to a subject like Principles of Economics, width isn’t the point, depth is.

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.”


Honestly, if you understand the principles of economics well enough, that alone suffices to get a grasp on how economists view most things about society. Each economist has his/her own list of what they might consider to be the principles of economics, but I’d argue that there are some that will certainly be on everybody’s list:

Incentives matter | Costs Matter | Trade matters | Externalities matter | Prices matter

As I said, some folks might include other principles, some folks might include a whole lot more, and some might provide our field with some much needed levity. It’s not so much about what makes each economists’ list and what doesn’t (although that is a topic that us economists can keep going for days on end) – but it is about two very different, and very important things:

  1. How well do you teach these principles?
  2. How much do you stress upon the application of these principles?

Learning about the principles doesn’t take all that much time, and neither does understanding them.

Applying them? Trust me, that takes a lifetime, and even us economists can trip up every now and then:

Virtually all economists consider opportunity cost a central concept. Yet a recent study by Paul J. Ferraro and Laura O. Taylor of Georgia State University suggests that most professional economists may not really understand it. At the 2005 annual meetings of the American Economic Association, the researchers asked almost 200 professional economists to answer this question:
“You won a free ticket to see an Eric Clapton concert (which has no resale value). Bob Dylan is performing on the same night and is your next-best alternative activity. Tickets to see Dylan cost $40. On any given day, you would be willing to pay up to $50 to see Dylan. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either performer. Based on this information, what is the opportunity cost of seeing Eric Clapton? (a) $0, (b) $10, (c) $40, or (d) $50.”
The opportunity cost of seeing Clapton is the total value of everything you must sacrifice to attend his concert — namely, the value to you of attending the Dylan concert. That value is $10 — the difference between the $50 that seeing his concert would be worth to you and the $40 you would have to pay for a ticket. So the unambiguously correct answer to the question is $10. Yet only 21.6 percent of the professional economists surveyed chose that answer, a smaller percentage than if they had chosen randomly. (Emphasis added)


It gets even worse, because as Robert Frank goes on to say in that article, students were likelier to give the correct answer if they had not taken an introductory econ course. And if that is not a damning indictment, I don’t know what is.

And so one thing that I’ve tried to change in how I teach Principles of Economics is to take things really, really slowly. Answer as many questions as possible for every nuance related to every principle, and not worry about the schedule and the teaching plan. Soak ourselves as thoroughly and as extensively as possible in each principle, ruminate about potential applications, wonder about exceptions, and then move on.

We might end up covering less, but that which we will cover, we will cover as thoroughly as possible. It is, I think, a better way to go about things. We’ll find out, at any rate 🙂

P.S.: One principle that I would want to talk about (and think about myself, to begin with!) is the principle that time matters. What is the best decision is as much a function of the choices, the trade-offs and the incentives, but each of these are subject to the time horizon that you have in mind. The decision about whether or not to have a second helping of desserts after lunch today (yumm!) is about choices, trade-offs and incentives, but it also is a function of what time horizon one has in mind:

And that principle is applicable in so many different ways! So yeah, about the list of principles of economics, my addition to the list would be “Time Matters”.