Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mike Konczal — Colleges are teaching economics backwards


Good post by Mike Konczal on teaching economics and how it is taught matters a whole lot. But it's just the tip of the iceberg. Even so it would be step forward, actually a step back to the way it used to be done, as he points out.
It used to be different. The preeminent economist Paul Samuelson once said "I don't care who writes a nation's laws, or crafts its treatises, if I can write its economics textbooks." And he was the one writing its textbooks for a long while. In the first version of his blockbuster textbook Economics (1948), the study of macroeconomics came first. And institutions were emphasized before the more abstract microeconomics that start off the education now. One of the central ideas was the “fallacy of composition,” or how things true of individual people or markets were not true of the aggregate behavior of the economic system.
Now, however, the newest editions of this textbook follow the normal curriculum. When did it change? Between the 13th and 14th editions, which came out in 1989 and 1992. In the 13th edition macroeconomics come first, while in the 14th edition there was a massive the whole ordering has been flipped.
The preface to the 14th edition is very clear on why it changed. The 14th edition says it has a new “leitmotif” in the “rediscovery of the market.” Celebrating the end of the Soviet Union, countries in Eastern Europe were rushing to introduce capitalism, while Western countries were deregulating and privatizing industries. Samuelson describes these political events marking the End of History as “parallel to placing microeconomics first in the sequence.” Microeconomics was seen as intellectually prior to and necessary for macroeconomics, tossing the concept of the fallacy of composition overboard. Not only that, but the new emphasis on an abstract and decontextualized microeconomics meant that the authors “deleted a great deal of institutional material that is less important for an understanding of modern economics.”
The Washington Post — Wonkblog
Colleges are teaching economics backwards
Mike Konczal | The Roosevelt Institute

2 comments:

Dan Kervick said...

I would put the study on institutions first, and then move to only those portions of both microconomics and macroeconomics that deal with the definitions of fundamental concepts, and the uncontroversial identities that govern them. What the student needs to get first is what "the economy" is, and how it can be conceptualized, before moving on to any of the highly conjectural "laws" economists are wont to offer on the score of how the economy behaves.

Kevin Byrne said...

Fortunately I had a great Macro and Micro teacher in college--and it was offered in that order. Macro was the prereq to Micro. Its been a long time, but the discussions of identities are some of the most powerful concepts I took away.