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Undergraduate Economics Education

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Undergraduate Economics Education"

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Brad DeLong offers his thoughts on undergraduate economics education in America:

The problems with the undergraduate curriculum qua curriculum seem to me to be largely problems with the history and context of the discipline–rather, the absence of same. Otherwise, the trot through market equilibrium, market optimality, market failure, and simple macroeconomics seems to work well. I might wish for more behavioral psychology in the market equilibrium part and a much better look at government failure in the market failure part, but those may come. I do think that warning labels should inform right-wing students that economics will encourage their bad intellectual habits just as labels should inform left-wing students that sociology will encourage theirs. The mix of words, algebraic equations, and analytic-geometric graphs and the requirement that students move back and forth among all three seems to me to turn a subject that ought to be conceptually rather easy into one that is, for the bulk of American students, relatively difficult.

I’m not so complacent about this. It seems to me that conventional basic undergraduate economics suffers from a kind of wrongheaded and somewhat lazy choice of examples. Obviously it’s difficult to generalize, but my impression is that the examples of price distorting regulations are always rent control and the minimum wage rather than bans on accessory dwellings or software patents. The overall impression given is that according to economists the main source of inefficient economic regulation is well-meaning but misguided efforts by progressive activists to help poor people. The main impact of this is to cause well-meaning progressive activists to tune out microeconomics and cause rightwingers to become more self-righteous.

But the political economy of that model doesn’t make any sense. Why would it be the case that the primary source of government intervention into the economy is the political clout of well-intentioned idealistic advocates for the poor? A much more typical example—and one that should resonate with college students—would be something like well-heeled homeowners in college-adjacent neighborhoods seeking regulatory barriers to student housing. Similarly, a nice explanation of the mix of social loss and private gain that would be involved in perfect enforcement of the laws against bittorrenting episodes of your favorite TV show would be demographically appropriate and illustrate a more realistic vision of political economy. This would go along well with DeLong’s point about history and context, situating the field closer to its classical liberal origins as a scourge of privilege rather than a kind of weird way of sneering at America’s barely-extant private sector labor unions.

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