Economists may seem puzzled by an obvious paradox.
- 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).
- 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.