Joy to the World

Today, I begin teaching my favoritest (yup, it’s a word) course in the whole wide world: Principles of Economics.

This is a course offered in the first semester of the undergraduate program of the Gokhale Institute, and when we designed this course, we had a weird idea in mind: not a single equation in the whole course, and as few diagrams as possible.

The course is intended as an introduction to the core ideas and principles of economics. The undergrad degree has introductory micro in the second semester, and introductory macro in the semester after that – but the first semester is about just the principles, and the application of these principles.

Or, as I prefer to think of it, it is about falling in love with economics.

I came into economics purely by chance. I am an engineering dropout (Farhan in 3 Idiots? That’s me), and economics was seen as being “the most respectable” thing to study in a Bachelor of Arts degree. But the more I study the subject, and especially its principles, the more I fall in love with it. Economics, when taught well, and learnt well, is a subject that everybody should get to study, reflect on, and apply in their own lives.

That last sentence is an assertion, the defense of which is the whole course I am about to teach, but it is also my life’s mission. As many students as possible should have the opportunity to learn economics, insofar as it is taught well.

What does taught well mean? That’s a complicated question, and we’ll get to it in greater detail eventually, but here are three things that I would think are table stakes when it comes to teaching economics well:

  1. No textbook: Economics is far too broad and important a subject to be confined to a textbook. And I honestly think it is a dangerous idea to leave students with the impression that studying a textbook, and solving the end-of-chapter problems means you “get” economics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Use many different textbooks, recommend parts of other books, encourage the students to think about economics when they’re watching movies, listening to songs, talking with their family or friends – but do not leave students with the idea that the study and the application of economics can be compartmentalized into a textbook and a series of examinations in a single semester.
    When the time comes to specialize in economics – when you want to draw a third budget line that is tangential to the first indifference curve but parallel to the second budget line – then sure, bring in the textbooks. But don’t leave students with the impression that this is all there is to economics.
    You might think that I’ve got the title of this section wrong – surely I mean to say not just one textbook? But no, I do mean no textbook! Given a choice, I’d much rather not have a single textbook. Videos, sure? Podcasts, bring ’em on. Novels, snippets from a variety of texts, movies, op-eds, blogs – yes. But for a subject as rich and precious as this, I am in favor of not confining teaching to just one recommended textbook.
  2. The point of economics is to be able to apply it: Learning about life being a non-zero sum game isn’t mugging up the definition so that one can regurgitate it in an examination. It is to apply it to all walks of life (it is one of the reasons I write this blog, for example). Learning about sunk costs should help you walk out of a bad movie. Learning about positive externalities should help you realize that starting your YouTube channel is an idea worth considering. Learning about opportunity costs should help you realize that spending more time on creating videos is a better use of your time than polishing a resume that is heavy on style and lacking in content. And so on. Dierdre McCloskey has an essay that I strongly disagree with, and my passion for teaching is renewed each time I read it.
  3. Passion: One should drive the point home in every single class in a subject such as this – don’t think of economics as a subject to be studied and then forgotten. It is a way to view the world, it is a way to enrich your ability to live your life to its fullest, and it is a way to help make the world a better place. The formal study of theoretical economics is about diagrams, and equations and derivations, sure – but the study of principles of economics is about unlocking secrets to a more productive life for yourself, and for society at large. Whoever is teaching this subject should agree wholeheartedly with this paragraph, to the point where “poora pagal hai” in this regard is both true and a compliment of sorts.

Economics is the study of how to get the most out of life is my favorite definition of economics, and today, I get the chance to teach a new bunch of students how and why this is true.

Bring it on!