I need to read a first year textbook

Nick Rowe appears to be getting a lot of heat for suggesting some internet commenters on economics might not  really understand economics. I feel this is unfair. Books are “things to think” with and reading lots of them give you more ways to think and help you understand how other people think.

Under no circumstances will reading something critically be harmful to you. Everyday the stock of the world’s knowledge expands more rapidly than you can learn, we are all getting relatively more ignorant, but you can try to keep up. In terms of opportunity cost there may be better ways of spending your time (as the below book review indicates) but with an open and critical mind it can only make you stronger so please people don’t get offended. 

Now I’ve studied a lot of economics, and more importantly economic history, but I’ve never read more than a few chapters from an undergrad textbook. Despite owning a copy of Krugman/Wells I haven’t finished it, so as I hand my dissertation in at the end of the month I’m going to take Nick’s advice, cover to cover one Sunday, in a park somewhere, with cider.

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12 thoughts on “I need to read a first year textbook

  1. I think if you’re going to get anything out of a first-year text, you have to read it with the attitude of wanting to learn from it, rather than looking for opportunities to rubbish it. You need to think the authors are not morons nor do they expect readers to be. You need to realise that it’s trying to present some very basic analytic building blocks in a highly simplified setting, not a complete model of reality. You are allowed to read about profit maximization under increasing marginal costs and perfect competition and think, okay that’s interesting but is only a reasonable description of very few cases (and then maybe go on to read about monopoly power and decreasing marginal costs).

    Otherwise you’ll do this:

    http://unlearningeconomics.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/read-a-textbook/

    1. ‘Luis Enrique’ seems to be on some sort of quest to paint me as unreasonable, but the fact is all I did was point out some problems with first year textbooks. At no point did I suggest the authors were idiots.

      When I first read my textbooks,(though I didn’t do it ‘cover to ‘cover’) I just felt like there was something wrong, particularly with the assumptions, fetish for reducing everything to curves and denial of reality’s importance.

      This was not because of any sort of bias – it was actually before the 2008 crash, which is what undermined my faith in economists. I have many commenters on my blog telling me similar things in half of my posts, so it’s not just me.

      As for the substance: you didn’t really engage that. But the fact is that 95% of firms of various sizes experience constant MC. There is no need to teach increasing MC, except as a brief exception (I think olive oil production, for some reason, experiences it).

      1. If you first wish to paint your critics as ignorant, then, when they show that they are not, simply vilify them for being critical at all, then the debate really isn’t going anywhere.

    2. Can’t help thinking that it isn’t a question of a “complete model of reality” but of the extent to which conditions of increasing marginal costs under perfect competition have a relevance to reality. There is no sense in having building blocks in a setting that is so highly simplified that it is counter-factual. If you do then 1st year economics becomes a modern equivalent of a puberty ceremony for the students.

      1. Call it puberty if you like, or walking before you can run, do you imagine first year students can go straight into thinking about badly behaved, uncertain production functions and demand functions, with strategic behaviour, before they’ve mastered the simplest setting?

        1. First year economics is taught to 18 year olds, many (most) of whom don’t have much interest in economics.

          My core subject, History, is terrible until the final year of undergrad, even postgrad there are some serious deficiencies. You have to compromise with the students and their aptitude and enthusiasm.

          The very basics are important in imparting the economic way of thinking (its important to say that this isn’t necessarily right wing, Chris Dillow is a very Hayekian left winger for example) and simpler models are better at teaching these.

          Secondly, what’s in a first year text book is a compromise over what best represents the first things people need to know. NGDP targeting should be in there in my view as should reams of Schumpeter/Harberger and Polanyi/North/Accemoglu, but they’re not. That is inevitable in any subject as complex as economics, your hobby horse might not make it, but you shouldn’t take that personally.

    1. No worries Luis, I thrive on conflict, always fun on the internet. In fact, were you to want a forum feel free to draft a post on this and I’d be happy to host it.

  2. Thanks for saying this! Yep, a lot of people got unnecessarily offended. (The “permanently indignant”?) Some didn’t seem to have understood the post. They didn’t see that it was addressed to people who haven’t read a first year textbook. They saw the word “heterodox”, and a red film descended.

    And there are some (maybe many?) people with PhD’s in economics who have never read a first year textbook either. And I think they should too, even if for slightly different reasons. And I think it’s great you are doing it. Well done!

    And a few others said they would do the same. And maybe even more will do the same, without saying so. Which means I’m glad I wrote the post, despite all the flack I got.

    (And if you *really* want to understand economics, you need to *teach* first year economics. Hmmm. I should do a post on that.)

    1. Hi Nick

      Speaking from experience I would absolutely agree with you that you learn far more from teaching a subject than you do from reading books on it.

      I’m sure I have a first-year econ textbook somewhere, and as I am the sort of person who reads textbooks cover to cover I’ve probably read it, too. I confess I don’t remember, though, as the last time I studied economics was twenty years ago and that was at postgrad level. Maybe I should update myself.

    2. Nick, thanks for dropping by. Permanently indignant is a good phrase, as I said above, not everything, anyone thinks is vital can make it into a first year text book read by people who are only partially engaged. Compromise and simplification is not an enemy of teaching.

      I’ve noticed this about heterodox and MMTers in particular. They’re very SHOUTY and ANGRY with people who hold conventional opinions. I’ve very angry about the world exploding shortly after my graduation 4 odd years ago (all those jobs? Whoops sorry, good luck paying off your debt!), but I don’t shout at people about it on the internet. It is very odd.

      A post on teaching economics would be very good, I agree with Frances. The best way to understand something is to try to explain it to someone else. The best learning tool is teaching by a long way.

  3. “…not everything, anyone thinks is vital can make it into a first year text book read by people who are only partially engaged”.

    Agreed, but I think a fair criticism of most first-year economics textbooks (pre-2008, at any rate) would be that they presented a false picture of the state of economic “science” by introducing neoclassical economics as if it were the only existing, scientifically valid approach.

    At least the old editions of the Samuelson textbook admitted that what was being presented was something called “the grand neoclassical synthesis”. Students would thus be able to at least infer there were other approaches besides that one.

    Not so if you read Mankiw, Krugman/Wells, Parkin, etc. (I read them all, btw, because I happen to enjoy introductory textbooks). These authors never even refer the existence of different, out of the mainstream schools of thought. They claim a consensus among economists where there is none. To do so in a text that may be the only formal exposition of economics that students will read throughout their lives is basically, simply dishonest, IMO.

    And it did not exactly enhance the reputation of said authors. How do you imagine a student of the 2007 edition of Krugman’s text reacted when he read the same Krugman, a couple of years later, in his impersonation as a blogger, attacking fellow economist Cochrane for not understanding basic macro accounting? “Wasn’t there a consensus among you guys? Why did you teach me a false story?” would be a plausible guess.

    This is sad, because with a small, extra effort these authors could have achieved a bit of balance. In fact, some manuals were more careful at presenting competing appoaches. An example is the Canadian version of Blinder-Baumol with extra input by Lavoie-Secareccia. Smoothly, it introduces students to both the neoclassical/NK and the post keynesian perspectives.
    This is the way to go in first year texts; let’s hope more authors will follow this example.

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