Can Undergraduates Be Taught To Think Like Economists?

The title of today’s blogpost has been copied, word for word, from a blogpost I had linked to earlier (the fifth link in this post).

It’s been about two and a half years since I read that post. I would still like to believe that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong, and that you can too teach undergraduates to think like economists. But well, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.


A common goal for principles of economics courses is to teach students to “think like economists.” I’ve always been a little skeptical of that high-sounding goal. It seems like a lot to accomplish in a semester or two.

https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/03/can-undergraduates-be-taught-to-think.html

Both Tim Taylor and Deirdre McCloskey (whose essay I excerpt from below) aren’t saying that you can’t teach economics to undergraduates. You most certainly can, and you don’t need to run a fancy-pants model to ascertain this. What they are saying, however, is that it is one thing to teach them the principles of economics. It is quite another to teach them to apply these principles in their lives, at all times.

Bower thinks that we can teach economics to undergraduates. I disagree. I have concluded reluctantly, after ruminating on it for a long me, that we can’t. We can teach about economics, which is a good thing. The undergraduate program in English literature teaches about literature, not how to do it. No one complains, or should. The undergraduate program in art history teaches about painting, not how to do it. I claim the case of economics is similar. Majoring in economics can teach about economics, but not how to do it…. (Emphasis added)

http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/docs/graham/natural.pdf

It is one thing to teach opportunity costs. And most students we’ve taught will tell you the definition. The “good” students will tell you three different definitions, from three different textbooks, and maybe cite a couple of academic papers that ruminate about what the definition means. Well, great. Do these students apply the concept of opportunity costs in their daily lives? Do they ask themselves if this (whatever this may be) is the best use of their time, and what are they giving up in order to do this?

Does winning matter more than learning? Does winning matter more than doing? If you end up defeating somebody else – a person, a team, a tribe, a party or a nation – what do you gain? And to go back to the previous paragraph, was it but a Pyrrhic victory?


Consider this hypothetical:

Let’s say there’s two teams in some corporate environment somewhere. And for whatever reason, these teams don’t get along well together. Both sides believe that they’re in the right, and the other side is in the wrong, and we’ve reached Mark Twain territory.

Are they going to go to their manager(s) and ask them to resolve this issue? Sure, it may seem like a good idea initially. But said managers, I can assure you, have things to do. Deliverables to, well, deliver. Teams to manage. Projects to initiate. Other people to manage. And so the manager(s) might listen to both teams long list of complaints once, perhaps twice.

But eventually the price mechanism will come to the party. The more the two teams spend time on this, rather than on work, the more expensive the situation becomes for the enterprise. Because a commodity that is limited (time) is being spent on non-productive work (productive, in this case, can be thought of as remunerative).

Since the whole point of the firm’s existence is to maximize revenue, this will not be tolerated for too long. The manager(s) will eventually say one of the following:

  1. Figure it out yourselves, but get the work done, for that’s what matters. Or else.
  2. Let’s reallocate, forcibly, both teams on to other projects. This will usually be accompanied with a mental note to themselves that truly important projects in the future should not be given to these team members. For obvious reasons.
  3. Or let’s shut down the project, because the point of a firm is to do the work that earns one the money. Start something new, with a new set of people.
  4. Now, since the team members are old enough to know that eventually pts 1 to 3 will occur, they usually swallow their differences and get the work done. Sure, bitching about the other team will happen in bars and pubs in the evening, and sure the other team won’t be called home for dinner anytime soon. But in the workplace, professionalism will win out, due to the price mechanism. In more explicit terms, they will get the work done because they know that otherwise they will be fired.

The reason all of this will happen is because these team members will have families, responsibilities, loans to pay off. The money they will lose out on by losing their jobs is far too important, and the threat of losing out on their income forces them to behave professionally.

The opportunity cost argument comes into play. Playing politics may be good for your ego, but it ain’t good for your wallet. But that lesson comes with age, it doesn’t come from attending principles of economics classes.

A nineteen-year old has intimations of immortality, comes directly from a socialized economy (called a family), and has no feel on his pulse for those tragedies of adult life that economists call scarcity and choice. You can teach a nineteen-year old all the math he can grasp, all the history he can read, all the Latin he can stand. But you cannot teach him a philosophical subject. For that he has to be, say twenty-five, or better, forty-five. …

http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/docs/graham/natural.pdf

Adults don’t necessarily grasp the argument that the opportunity cost of politics is work. But they understand the rules of the game called life. They do understand that the opportunity cost of politics is an increase in the probability of losing their wages. And so they still practice politics, but more covertly. Not, in other words, an ideal situation if the system is trying to optimize work, but hey, better than overt politics.

How to get students to understand that the opportunity cost of politics is learning? That the opportunity cost of politics is not getting fun projects done? That the opportunity cost of resolving arguments, or adjudicating who said what to whom and when is not being able to start other fun learning based projects? There’s no price mechanism at play, there’s illusions of immortality (they don’t get that time is limited), they don’t have the responsibility of putting food on the table (they come from a socialized economy called a family), and they haven’t experienced the tragedies of adult life.

To them, winning a political argument against the other side is the best use of their time.


Principles of economics, if taught well, and if learnt well, should in theory help you understand that the opportunity cost of politics is work. Philosophy should in theory teach you that good work is better than bad politics.

I’ll say this much: I was convinced that Deirdre McCloskey was wrong when she said that you couldn’t have undergraduates do economics, even if we taught them economics.

Now?

I hope.

Macroeconomics and Arguments

The best way to learn is by arguing with somebody.

Classes are boring, reading is passive, and videos are both of these things. But when you meet somebody who is well informed, thoughtful, respectful of your viewpoint but is willing to argue with you, well: Merry Christmas.

I’m well aware that social media leaves one with the impression that none of these things are true these days, but that is just our tendency to search out the bad, rather than the good.

When I teach courses in behavioral finance, for example, I often show a discussion between Richard Thaler and Eugene Fama:

That is not the point of today’s blogpost, but it is still a video worthy of your time, whether you’re interested in the topic or not. These two gentlemen (Nobel Prize winners both of them) hold diametrically opposite views when it comes to the efficiency of markets. But they spend a little over forty minutes here, engaged in perfectly civil conversation with each other, without once ceding an inch to the other’s viewpoint. The point isn’t the fact that we’re left without a clear understanding of who is right and who is wrong. The takeaway is that it is entirely possible to argue without turning the argument into a shouting match.

It is, as nine pm teaches us every night in India, a vanishing art.

Macroeconomics is a subject that lends itself to vigorous debate for a variety of reasons. One, and let us be clear about this, nobody has the slightest idea about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to macroeconomics. Yes, really.

Two, counterfactuals are impossible to come by, and so you can engage in endless games of but-have-you-considered.

Three, every macroeconomic crisis that I have had the opportunity to study as it has unfolded has led to all of what is listed below:

  1. Some old theories have been vindicated
  2. Some old theories have been falsified
  3. All theories have been updated
  4. We still don’t know quite what is going on

What’s worse is that the first two points depend almost entirely upon one’s point of view. And again, no, I am not making this up.

But I am not saying that this makes macroeconomics “bad”. This is precisely what makes it fascinating!

And the example du jour comes from two economists who love arguing with each other: Noah Smith and Tyler Cowen. The topic? President Biden’s proposed stimulus.

Blanchard’s argument that Biden’s bill is too large rests on the idea that this amount of spending will cause the economy to “overheat” — in other words, that inflation will rise. To prevent this, he suggests shrinking the size of the bill and financing more of it with taxes.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/covid-relief-isnt-stimulus-its-social

This is a point made by Larry Summers as well, by the way. For a good summary, see this Vox article.

Noah Smith’s point, and it one worth considering, is that this recession isn’t like the others. We say that every time there is a recession, by the way, but Smith’s point this time around is that the spending shouldn’t really be thought of as a stimulus, it should be thought of as social insurance:

If you get a check during a pandemic, you’re not going to go out and spend it at restaurants and bars, because…well, there’s a pandemic. Instead, you’re more likely to stick it in the bank, pay down debt, or pay the back rent that you owe.
In a normal recession, this is exactly what we don’t want people to do. We want them to take their government checks and go out and spend them, to restart the virtuous cycle of economic activity! But in a pandemic, it’s fine.
It’s fine because what we’re trying to do with COVID relief isn’t actually pump-priming — it’s retroactive social insurance. Some people, through no fault of their own, took a big hit from a risk that only a few people were paying attention to. In order to relieve those people’s suffering, we are giving them money that they can use to pay rent and buy necessities, as well as money to pay down debts so they have a bit more financial security.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/covid-relief-isnt-stimulus-its-social

The rest of the post is worth reading, because it identifies potential flaws in the argument he is making, and provides reasoned counter arguments. So well is this done that you begin to side with him…

…until you read Professor Cowen:

Leave aside the political question of how aggressively to pursue an agenda of a larger, more activist government (and keep in mind that I am more libertarian than many of the participants in this debate). Take a Big Government as a given. History shows that consumption still ought not be the priority.

It’s not as if there aren’t obvious candidates for alternative investment: green energy, broadband and public-health infrastructure for the next pandemic, to name a few. Yes, I am familiar with the argument that spending the extra trillion or so now will make it possible to spend more trillions later, including on such policies. But whatever kind of complicated political story you might tell, the basic laws of economics have not been repealed. Increasing current expenditures does, in fact, involve foregone future opportunities.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/02/investment-investment-investment-how-to-think-about-the-biden-stimulus-proposal.html

And his concluding paragraph is an excellent teacher at work, because he goes back to the Principles of Economics:

I say you can divide the commenters here into two groups.  Those who produce complicated arguments about why opportunity cost reasoning does not apply here, and those who stress the relevance of the opportunity cost of allocating another trillion dollars or two.  I believe that once you recognize that distinction, you know what to do with it next.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/02/investment-investment-investment-how-to-think-about-the-biden-stimulus-proposal.html

To which a pro-stimulus (or pro social insurance) person might say, “But people first!” Does that argument hold true? If this stimulus results in runaway inflation a couple of years down the line (students of the Indian economy might recall the years 2009-2013, so we’re not talking hypotheticals here), then was the stimulus in fact worth it? How do we balance this argument against the very real need to provide a stimulus today?

I am completely unsure about what the correct answer is – and that is my point in today’s post.

How can one not be fascinated by macroeconomics?

Ec101: Understanding Opportunity Costs

I mean, come on. Who doesn’t understand opportunity costs?

The cost of the next best alternative, of the opportunity foregone. We could have told you this in our sleep.

So answer me this (and please don’t cheat):

“Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga – there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b), £10, (c) £40, or (d) £50.”

  1. That is from Tim Harford, and is unfortunately behind an FT paywall. But here’s the original paper.
    ..
    ..
    “We were surprised by the diversity of opinion regarding the value to which the
    term “opportunity cost” applies. As Table 2 indicates, the most popular answer
    was $50, with 27.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The second most
    popular answer was $40, with 25.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The
    third most popular answer was $0, with 25.1% of respondents choosing this
    answer. The correct answer, $10, was the least popular, with only 21.6% of
    respondents choosing this answer. In essence, the answers given to us by well trained economists appear to be randomly distributed across possible answers.” (Emphasis added)
    ..
    ..
    So what did you guess?
    ..
    ..
  2. People got plenty upset about the whole thing – check the comments, especially,
    ..
    ..
  3. “I don’t have any quarrel with Alex’s economics; as far as I can see this point is semantic. (I’ll also admit that my gross perspective on opportunity cost is somewhat anachronistic; it is one reason why mainstream economists work directly with consumer surplus.) What disturbs me is how few economists gave $50 or $40 as the right answer; the actual answers were close to randomly distributed. Most Web-based sources appear confused on the net vs. gross issue, but at least they hover across the $40 and $50 options.”
    ..
    ..
    Economists don’t always agree, but it mostly comes to down to splitting hairs? If only it were so
    ..
    ..
  4. “This paper analyzes the relationship between opportunity costs of waiting and bribery in rationing by waiting situations. Assuming that a uniform waiting time clears the market for any given bribe and the bureaucrat chooses a bribe to maximize profit, the market equilibrium is characterized in terms of individual valuations of the good and opportunity costs of waiting. If individual valuations take discrete values and opportunity costs of waiting are uniformly distributed, then in an equilibrium individuals with low costs of waiting choose to wait while those with high opportunity costs pay the bribe”
    ..
    ..
    While traveling on India’s highways, have you ever seen trucks waiting by the highway for no apparent reason?
    ..
    ..
  5. For interested students, a big fat list of examples, drawn from multiple walks of life.