Observe, and Ask

Most students who take introductory economics seem to leave the course without really having learned even the most important basic economic principles. For example, 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 (Hansen, Salemi and Siegfried 2002). The problem seems to be that instructors of principles courses almost always try to teach students far too much. In the process, really important ideas get no more coverage than minor ones. Everything ends up going by in a blur

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

So begins a paper called “The Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment”, a paper that everybody can (and dare I say should) read. Robert Frank has forgotten more about teaching principles of economics than most of us will ever learn. 48 years of teaching, so that last sentence isn’t rhetorical.

A successful economics learning experience should mirror these same steps. A short list of basic principles should be presented to students, one at a time in the context of simple examples drawn from familiar settings. Following each, students should be asked to practice the principle by using it to solve simple problems that are closely parallel to the ones used to illustrate the principle. The student should then be given the opportunity to pose original questions and use the same basic principles to answer them.

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

Readers who are familiar with the book The Economic Naturalist will have guessed where this is going. For years, Professor Frank asked his students to write essays about things they saw around them that they found puzzling, interesting, or counterintuitive. The point of the essays was to, well, observe and ask. And then, using the principles of economics that had just been taught to them, try and come up with answers.

A really successful paper is one that begins with a really interesting question (one that makes the listener instantly curious to learn the answer) and then uses an economic principle or principles to construct a plausible answer. You’ll know you have a good paper if the first thing your roommate wants to do upon reading it is to tell friends about it.

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

What kind of questions? Here are just two (the names in parentheses are of the students who asked the question, and went on to answer them in their essays):

  1. Why do brides spend so much money on wedding dresses, whereas grooms often rent cheap tuxedos, even though grooms could potentially wear their tuxedos on many other occasions and brides will never wear their dresses again?
    (Jennifer Dulski)
  2. Why are round-trip fares from Hawaii to the mainland higher than the corresponding fares from the mainland to Hawaii? (Karen Hittle)

Curious to hear the answers? Please, read the paper as an appetizer, and for the mains, buy the book.


In the paper I have been excerpting from, Professor Frank uses the analogy of how tennis is taught to beginners, beginning with basic drills (of which the forehand comes first).

Those who aspire to move their games to a higher level typically continue with formal instruction. However, for them, too, an important part of the learning process is continued play.

Same as earlier, which is what ibid means

Now, about that “continued play” being an important part of the learning process, Tyler Cowen has a post out today, titled “Why do they keep the books wrapped in Mexican bookstores?“:

Yes, wrapped in clear shrink wrap. So you can’t page through them and see what the book might be like. I can think of a few hypotheses:
They don’t want you standing in the bookstore reading the thing, rather than buying it. A bit like some U.S. comics news stands in days past. Yet this doesn’t seem so plausible for longer books or most novels.
They want the books to look nicer and less grimy.
How about price discrimination?

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/07/why-do-they-keep-the-books-wrapped-in-mexican-bookstores.html

If Tyler Cowen can take the time out to practice his forehand, surely the rest of us can also train like athletes?

Principles of economics can be learnt for free online, using any resource of your choice. I’m not linking to any specific one because I want to make the point that you can very, very easily choose a resource, and it will likely be great.

But better still, principles of economics can be practiced very easily too! What are you waiting for? 🙂

Finally: Crosswords (at least the one closest to my home) wraps some books in clear shrink wrap, but not others. Does anybody know why?

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.

Signal: Pricing and Privacy

This will not inspire confidence, but still: I am one of those idiots who actually paid Whatsapp money before it got taken over by Facebook.

Back in the day, before Facebook had completed its takeover of Whatsapp, the service used to charge a nominal fee for its users. Actually, even that fee was a farce, because after the first year (which was always free), you could in effect simply continue to use Whatsapp without paying a dime.

But so impressed was I with the app, and so much of a believer in paying for what I really liked, that I went ahead and actually paid up.

Doesn’t much inspire confidence in my ability to understand economics, let alone teach it, but there you go.

We all know what happened next of course, including Facebook swallowing up Whatsapp, and then the change in the terms and conditions of 2016 – and now of course, the latest proposed change. Which, if you’ve been keeping track, has itself been pushed out to a later date.

Never a dull moment, as they say.

And the whole brouhaha has resulted in Signal and Telegram seeing record sign-ups. A couple of Whatsapp groups that I am a part of have also migrated over to Signal, because of Whatsapp’s (Facebook’s, really) privacy issues, and because I am a sucker for trying new things, I have installed the app and the desptop version.

Which so far isn’t actually going all that well, because all that has happened is I now have two messaging apps and two desktop apps, but let’s see how it goes. Signal, of course, is much more about privacy than Whatsapp:

…our engineers spend all their time fixing bugs, adding new features and ironing out all the little intricacies in our task of bringing rich, affordable, reliable messaging to every phone in the world. That’s our product and that’s our passion. Your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.

Now, I usually provide a link to the place I take the excerpt from, as indeed I should. In this case, I didn’t because I wanted to spend some time speaking about where I was a little sneakt. I took it from not the Signal website, but the Whatsapp blog. This particular post was from 2012, and it actually begins with a quote from Fight Club. Yes, seriously.

So, as I was saying, I’ll give Signal a shot, but I’m not holding my breath this time around. Without some way to get people to pay for what they use, things are not likely to work out, and that’s just the way it is. You pay with your money, or you pay with your information – unless you’re Wikipedia, and even they need the occasional helping hand.

That Whatsapp blogpost ends with this line:

When people ask us why we charge for WhatsApp, we say “Have you considered the alternative?”

https://blog.whatsapp.com/why-we-don-t-sell-ads

… and my current view is, there isn’t one. You can pay with your information, or you can pay with your money, but as I said in a Principles of Econ course I taught last semester, you gotta pay one way or the other.

But it’s the other way that I wanted to speak about today, by citing an idea that more people should be thinking about: dominant assurance contracts. Lengthy excerpt follows:

The dominant assurance contract adds a simple twist to the crowdfunding contract. An entrepreneur commits to produce a valuable public good if and only if enough people donate, but if not enough donate, the entrepreneur commits not just to return the donor’s funds but to give each donor a refund bonus. To see how this solves the public good problem consider the simplest case. Suppose that there is a public good worth $100 to each of 10 people. The cost of the public good is $800. If each person paid $80, they all would be better off. Each person, however, may choose not to donate, perhaps because they think others will not donate, or perhaps because they think that they can free ride.

Now consider a dominant assurance contract. An entrepreneur agrees to produce the public good if and only if each of 10 people pay $80. If fewer than 10 people donate, the contract is said to fail and the entrepreneur agrees to give a refund bonus of $5 to each of the donors. Now imagine that potential donor A thinks that potential donor B will not donate. In that case, it makes sense for A to donate, because by doing so he will earn $5 at no cost. Thus any donor who thinks that the contract will fail has an incentive to donate. Doing so earns free money. As a result, it cannot be an equilibrium for more than one person to fail to donate. We have only one more point to consider. What if donor A thinks that every other donor will donate? In this case, A knows that if he donates he won’t get the refund bonus, since the contract will succeed. But he also knows that if he doesn’t donate he won’t get anything, but if does donate he will pay $80 and get a public good which is worth $100 to him, for a net gain of $20. Thus, A always has an incentive to donate. If others do not donate, he earns free money. If others do donate, he gets the value of the public good. Thus donating is a win-win, and the public good problem is solved.

https://www.cato-unbound.org/2017/06/07/alex-tabarrok/making-markets-work-better-dominant-assurance-contracts-some-other-helpful

Will this work for Signal? Can those of us who believe in paying an amount (how much is a function of which country, how generous you are feeling, how much you use the app, how much revenue you stand to earn by using the app etc, etc) be coordinated by a rather visible hand?

I don’t know the answer, but if any budding microeconomist out there is looking for a cool problem to play around with, I have a free blogpost to sell to you.

(For the budding microeconomist, further reading: Vitalik Buterin not getting what’s so cool about dominant assurance contracts, and an MR post about the issue. Further further reading: be sure to take a look at Rahul’s comment in the MR post.)

EC101: Links for 18th July, 2019

Some news: the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (where I work) recently started an undergraduate program in economics. I can’t tell you how excited I am at the opportunity to teach young people economics. Hopefully – although I cannot commit to this yet – I will be able to keep you updated with what we’re trying that’s different, and what I learn through the process of teaching in this program.

In honor of this first batch of students, though, here are five links from two people who have inspired me, and countless others, to both learn and teach economics. Marginal Revolution: thank you.

  1. What should I read to learn economics?
    ..
    ..
  2. What’s the shortest description of economics as a field of study?
    ..
    ..
  3. How soon is too soon to start teaching economics?
    ..
    ..
  4. Can skating teach you about economics? Well, uh, it’s complicated
    ..
    ..
  5. The most important lesson in economics I have ever learnt, and can ever teach.

 

As I said, I hope to update this blog regularly with lessons I have learnt, of many sorts. And fingers crossed, I will be able to do so. Here is the syllabus, in case you are interested.  In the meantime, if you have suggestions, comments, feedback – please do let me know.

Thanks.

EC101: Links for 11th July, 2019

  1. “The two approaches reflect different attitudes toward risk, the role of government and collective social responsibility. Analogous to America’s debate over health insurance, the American philosophy has been to make more resilient buildings an individual choice, not a government mandate.”
    ..
    ..
    Risk, how (not) to measure it and therefore understand it. As Taleb is fond of saying, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.
    ..
    ..
  2. “Is it possible that interest rates are a net input cost in the Indian context? This existential monetary question is yet to be even acknowledged by economists, let alone addressed.”
    ..
    ..
    A superb (and I use the word advisedly) overview of monetary policy and how it works in India.
    ..
    ..
  3. “I would challenge my students at the start of the new semester with the following three questions; 1) how much does it cost you to go to the beach (we lived in a coastal city)? 2) should Tiger Woods mow his own lawn? or 3) should Lebron and Kobie go to college?”
    ..
    ..
    Opportunity costs, economic costs and accounting costs – all in one article, and therefore a great read.
    ..
    ..
  4. “The cornerstone of Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook, Principles of Economics, is a synthesis of economic thought into Ten Principles of Economics (listed in the first table below). A quick perusal of these will likely affirm the reader’s suspicions that synthesizing economic thought into Ten Principles is no easy task, and may even lead the reader to suspect that the subtlety and concision required are not to be found in the pen of N. Gregory Mankiw.”
    ..
    ..
    A hilarious (but perhaps only to an economist) take on the ten principles of economics.
    ..
    ..
  5. “And the long version of the history is crucial here. It shows that for much of the 20th century, total taxes on the very wealthy were much higher than they are now. Before World War II, the average rate hovered around 70 percent. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, the average rate was above 50 percent.”
    ..
    ..
    David Leonhardt on taxing the rich in America. His newsletter is worth subscribing to, by the way.