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Economists may seem puzzled by an obvious paradox.

  1. Economics is among the most popular majors on college campuses; on many campuses it is the largest major (it is either the largest or second largest at my current place of employment).
  2. Very few people seem to “get” economics.

Point 2 requires some elaboration. It’s not just that few people “get” economics, it is that you probably would not see the share of students at a university who “gets” economics correspond with the share of students that take economics courses or are economics majors.

In days when I am in a more dour mood than I am today, I would offer up the fact that we are not actually in a university anymore but rather a secular church, but I am not in the mood to be that dour. So, aside from doing some hand wringing, can we use some basic economics to help explain this “fact” (if indeed it is true)? I think I can.

My intro class has 320 students in it. 320. One of them is taught at 9am. And although my teaching philosophy is designed around simulating in a large class setting what we might do in a small class setting, the overwhelming numbers just make it impossible to do. Ask my students about what I do. I basically spend lectures debating myself. I spend lectures telling stories and weaving together ideas and images that I hope bring the ideas and insights of economics to life. I ask my students to read and write … a lot! Every week. I send videos, audios, blog posts, book excerpts, announcements from the college, announcements about outside events, pictures, etc. and I send them several times per week. I chat with students and email with them and also try to “communicate” with them through our large and excellent group of TAs.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that it is no different than me rolling rocks uphill. It may be a great big fat waste of time and resources. No matter how much feedback and intimacy I try to use, you simply cannot scale up a 5 person or 10 person discussion /  family into a 320 person experience. And it is going put me in the grave d0ing it even as I refuse to admit that it is futile. But therein lies one problem for economics.

For whatever reason (be it parents pressuring their children to take it, because it is thought to be the path for riches, because it is entertaining, etc.) lots of people take economics. And in those classes we talk about how central planning is difficult due to the inherent limits on human knowledge and the associated incentive problems when you do away with property rights. We demonstrate very carefully that everything has a cost. We do not advocate for doing nothing or something, for example, but we do require that the costs of our actions be made explicit and that we be aware of unintended consequences and the way that our decisions (private or political) alter incentives.

Yet people just happily live their lives ignoring these lessons.

Meanwhile, it appears that very small groups of students, alumni, etc. have an undue influence on the rhetoric and popular understanding of various problems. But think about why. For many of these students, they have had the opportunity to be in classes and take majors where we can count the total number of people on two to four hands. Regardless of whatever it is that they are learning, they are going to have an experience that is more intimate, and more important, that provides them with an opportunity to learn under high feedback mechanisms and furthermore, they have a chance to develop quite intimate connections with their classmates and their instructors.

And that matters a great deal.

And to the extent that the places in the Academy that are small and intimate are hostile to the idea of freedom, property rights and true peace, then it should not surprise anyone that there seems to be “solidarity” on campus for the sorts of things you tend to see on campus. In this regard, economics is a “victim” of its apparent success. Since we can never deliver the intimacy and tribal feel of the small, less-popular, disciplines, we never can reach students like they do.

Now of course, there are counterarguments to be made here, and I’ll let you offer those up in the comments.

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6 Responses to “Economic Self-Cannibalism?”

  1. Common Sense says:

    counterargument: students are lazy, and unwilling to expend the mental energy neccessary to understand economics. Students/Human beings are not comfortable admitting that most of the ideas they hold and support are scientifically flawed.
    Sorry to seem gloomy. But ultimately it is the responsibility of the individual to make the most of his/her education.

  2. jb says:

    Don’t despair WC. As a former econ instructor, even with rather small classes, I can assure you over 70% are there to figure out what is going to be on the test, in order to spend the minimum amount of time studying to pass the test, to allow themselves more time to kick back and enjoy a taxpayer-subsidized 4 year party. That’s not necessarily irrational, but it is despressing. However, I can also assure you that you will reach one or two of these folks in every class and actually turn them on to thinking about economics in a new way. As I recall someone, somewhere brought you from the far left into the light (I’d love to hear about your epiphany someday, by the way). Anyway, don’t give up the fight.

  3. Dan says:

    A few points:

    Most of the majors that with fewer than 20 students don’t have (obviously) normative subject matter. Take a look at the fact sheet below. I don’t see things getting very political in Geomechanics (2), German (13), or Art History (15). Or maybe they are?
    http://www.rochester.edu/provost/assets/ir/Factbook%2012-13/UG%20Enrollment%20by%20Major%20-%203%20yr.pdf

    Probably about half of the classes I’ve taken in college have had fewer than 20 people, thanks to my philosophy major and music interests. And I’ve never felt class dynamics to be tribal. Students are simply disengaged, even in fairly normative philosophy classes.

    Even if there was much intimacy between students, I don’t think that they’re as powerful as you think. Probably a good reason that so few people choose these majors is because they’re low-status. If Classics (7) has the same status as Physics, we’d probably see more Classics majors.

    Finally, many people who take art history or philosophy classes aren’t actually art history or philosophy majors. Classes are pretty fluid. And those people didn’t sign up for very off-topic discussions.

    • Harry says:

      Dan, I too was a philosophy major for many of the same reasons.

      I am sure the very narcissism horrified my parents and my uncle who were footing the bill not just for that, but all of the other courses, most of which were meaty, maybe two of which were gut courses to finish out spring in my senior year, like art history, which has stayed with me as much as Civil War History.

      As it turned out, there is much I wish I had learned, and in retrospect I wasted much, much time. And being an economics major would have been easier, like being a history major, much easier to make Phi Beta Kappa. I had enough history classes by year one and a half to do that, but then I found other things more interesting.

      Looking back, I would not have changed a thing, because the chain of circumstances would not have led to my meeting my wife, and the happy life I have had, the fulfillment far outweighing the bad. I am grateful that I had a liberal education which included demanding chemistry and physics labs in college and four years of labs in high school, including two labs in bio that included a fetal pig and a whole smelly chicken. This prepared me, along with Goedel’s proof for the seminar in the philosophy of science.

      Everything I learned in Economics was through the school of hard knocks, which I will not elaborate on here.

      My daughter graduated from a great college a few years ago and she was an English major. All I ever cared about was whether she was developing her mind to be able to learn what she would need for the rest of her life on her own. As it is turning out, she has a job she loves which enriches her spirit every day, although some days are not immediately perceived as enriching. Life is not all gravy.

      Therefore, be not discouraged by those who think philosophical pursuit is frivolous. Philosophy, after all, is the study of everything.

  4. Tom Davis says:

    I’ve had similar experiences in quite different circumstances.

    I’m a bartender, and must address certain problems, such as cleaning glasses. One general solution for cleaning glasses is to use three sinks in serial with sink1=cleanser (an acid), sink2=water, sink3=sanitizer (a base). I once had a barback (the person who actually washes glasses) who was by day a lab assistant with a BS in chemistry. One night I found that he had filled the sinks cleanser,sanitizer,water. When I asked him why he told me he didn’t like leaving the sanitizer on the glass and so wanted to have the rinse water last. I picked out a glass he had washed before I got there and asked him why he thought it had a white film on it. I, with only high school chemistry, had to actually explain that it was precipitate from the reaction of the acid cleanser and the base sanitizer and reiterated that we order the sinks for actual real world reasons and not so we can feel good about our non-scientific beliefs. He hadn’t recognized the precipitate, but did immediately agree that I was technically correct. Nevertheless on several other occasions I found myself emptying sinks, and refilling them correctly.

    In my current job as bar lead I am called on to teach the bar staff ways they can improve their performance and consequently their income (the company benefits too). I often describe to my staff the difference between perceived time and actual time (when patrons are engaged they do not notice waiting, but when they are “actively” waiting for service, they become restless and agitated). I explain how bartenders can engage their customers while they are doing other things. I also describe ways to organize their workspace and drink orders to maximize customer satisfaction. Every one of these teaching sessions is one on one, and in every case the other bartenders respond verbally in ways that make me believe they have understood what I’ve said. But it is rare for one of the bartenders to actually adopt new behavior that would implement those ideas even though there is a promise of more money in their pockets and even though I demonstrate that there is a reduction in actual work they must perform per dollar in tips they receive.

    It is certainly possible that I’m just a very bad teacher, though I am generally singled out by my superiors as well as by my staff as being a particularly effective teacher. As time goes on I am more and more of the opinion that most people are reluctant to change the world models they carry around in their heads, regardless of the enormity of evidence contrary to their beliefs.

    What I’m saying is that the lack of practical acceptance of reality in economics (or tending bar) is not related to class size, but is based on what can best be described as stubbornness, or at least mental inertia. Likewise, I’m of the opinion that the reason small intimate settings on campus are rife with collectivist propaganda isn’t because teachers of such thoughts have lucked out in getting small classes, but rather it’s because in small groups, students — just out of the family nest, and looking to reestablish the nuclear family structure in a larger social framework — have greater control of the dialog than the teacher, and that it is as much the students who are expounding the virtues of central control, etc.

  5. Common Sense says:

    Reading. Kids who read get it. Kids who dont never will.

    As I proposed in my previous comment, education is ultimately the repsonsiblity of the individual. Although I still believe this as much as ever, upon deeper reflectoin I am forced to consider to possible realities: a) if I truly am one who “gets it”, I may have a moral reponsibility to spread truth and reason, and suffer the consequences, no matter how grave, of fighting, until my teeth and nails are worn to nothing, against the tyrannies that chain man and b) my damning analysis of the modern student, depsite the truth it may tanslate, is of no use to others suffering in their pursuit of truth adn straing into the eyes of the monster of ignorance. Hayek a lost large part of his time on Earth in isolation; casted from his fellow scholars for his commitment to truth. We may still be lonely, but we are not alone.

    Therfore, I suggest my own imperfect proposals to counteract the paradox of self-canabilism which consumes our intellectual field of interest.

    Continuing with the idea of education being a personal responsibility, the most fufilling moments of learning are often individual as well. Reading assignments tend to be ignored, and those which are not ignored tend to be fufilled on an individual basis. As it is through writing that students have the opportunity to communicate with their professors, likewise, professors can communicate individually to their students through assigned readings.

    But readings must be assigned in a way that maximizes the return on knowledge from the investment – that is, how can students learn the most by working the least. I would suggest offering students 3 different books to choose from. Books that are fun to read(pop economics are better than no economics). And a 2 page paper due to prove that the book was actually read. By making reading assignments extermely easy, you maximize the opportunity to kindle intellectual fires, by minimizing the incentive to skip, cut corners, or cheat. The funny thing is, it doesnt need to be that closely realted to class. Just something.

    To paraphrase from a wiser man than myself, “those who have ears will hear.” As for the rest, “many are called but few are chosen.” In frustrating times, these themes provide some relief.

    Class is just the begininning. Class, with 300 students, is the ground over which you will be planting intellectual “seeds.” Many will fall on rock, many will be choked by the weeds, but some will grow and produce 100 times more than you ever imagined. These students will come back for more, as “those who have will be given more.” Once these students identify themselves, it is among these small groups that efforts will produce the highest marginal return.

    And there is truly no limit to how much a small and dedicated group of individuals can achieve. As our “message,” that liberty produces the best for all, is ultimately a message of hope, we too, shall always be filled with hope.

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