Tuesday, November 4, 2014

New Introductory Economics Textbooks

I haven’t used this blog to call attention to my new textbooks, Microeconomics: A Fresh Start and Macroeconomics: A Fresh Start, so let me do that now.  Where did they come from, what’s new about them, and who are they for?  In this post I will describe the concepts behind the books in a general way, and in future posts I’ll discuss particular things to look for in each of them.

1. Where did they come from?  They came from my own teaching, which has been intensive in introductory economics to an extent that I suspect few other teachers can match.  Because of my particular career history, virtually all my economics instruction has been at the intro level for the past 20 years.  For the past 16 years I’ve been at Evergreen, where most teaching is interdisciplinary and team-based.  I have taught introductory economics with natural scientists, philosophers, historians, sociologists, political scientists and cultural studies scholars.  Each time I have searched for different points of contact and tension between economics and these other fields.  In the process I’ve come to understand what makes economics distinctive, and to identify the assumptions and mental frameworks economists use that people with other backgrounds don’t.  Conveying what is specific to economics seems to me to be a big part of what introductory teaching should be about.

In addition, Evergreen’s pedagogy is steeped in critical thinking and inductive, problem-solving modes of learning.  Well before it was fashionable I was devising a wide range of workshops, labs, mini-projects and other activities for students to experience using economics and not just memorizing definitions and diagrams.  With this approach I simply couldn’t use any of the existing introductory economics texts.  They were all written in an authoritative voice: this is what you must believe.  They provided lots of models with sparse explanation; the expectation was obviously that the instructor would spend most of the available class time filling in the explanations the books left out.  They were based on the tabula rasa notion that students walk into the classroom with an empty head, waiting to have it filled up with “material”—rather than recognizing that students are people who come to education with a head already stocked with ideas, so that education has to be about new ideas meeting existing ones.

I had no choice but to begin writing my own book, slowly, a chapter at a time.

2. What’s different?  Basically, the differences fall into two categories.  First, as I’ve just described, the pedagogical model is entirely different.  Economics in these books is offered as an object of scrutiny, not a fount of unchallengeable wisdom.  Where economics differs in its assumptions and strategies of understanding, I simply put them beside the approaches of other disciplines and let students make up their own minds.  Evidence is presented not to demonstrate that some particular economic theories are “right”, but as a basis for critical thinking.  My premise is that the world economics tries to analyze is extremely complex, and no single theory will be right every time.  The best approach is case-based: identifying the kinds of situations where particular theories do a good job, as well as the ones were they tend to come up short.

Very important to the pedagogy is deep explanation.  I try to make every assumption explicit, every time.  This includes how the elements of a theory can (or can’t) be measured, why curves are drawn the way they are (and whether they could be drawn differently), and how you would know if the theory were wrong.  I talk about the history behind the various theories—when they were developed and what they were intended to accomplish.  I give extra examples.  My goal is to pack as much of the explanation as possible into the reading, so that more class time can be spent on activities, not lectures.

The explanation style also addresses itself to the ideas that, in my experience, students are likely to bring to the study of economics.  Where their experiences are relevant, I try to bring them in.  Where popularly-held economic ideas conflict with careful reasoning, I don’t hesitate to point it out.  Above all, I’m attentive to the problem of language, the way the same words may mean one thing in everyday conversation and another in a technical economics context.  You can see this, for instance, in words like “equilibrium” and “trade”.  It’s not that the student’s language is “wrong”, just that adjustments need to be made for the way words are used differently.

The other major difference is content, and here I have to describe the biggest, most consequential decision I made when writing these texts.  There have always been textbooks written to correct the “errors” of mainstream economics or to offer what their authors thought was a better theoretical framework.  I’m sympathetic to many of the ideas you can find in these books, and it’s stimulating to have a wide range of views, but in the end each such book has the same flaw: it’s my way or the highway.  These books replace the espousal of doctrine A by the mainstream books with the author’s preferred doctrine B.  They don’t invite a critical reading, and invariably you (the instructor) are going to find that there’s a lot of B that you just can’t buy into.  In any event, none of these books has really caused the profession as a whole to rethink how it approaches the introductory curriculum.

So I decided I would not try to fix economics.  These books do not represent my personal take on what’s wrong with economics as it is and how it ought to be reformed.  I simply don’t go there.  (Except on occasions when I can’t help it.)  Rather than the gap between my ideal economics and actually existing economics, I chose to focus on the gap between economics as it is currently practiced by economists and the way it is presented to introductory students.  That gap is huge, and it gives me a lot to work with.

Why is it so huge?  I think two factors have coincided.  On the one hand, economics has evolved considerably over the past two decades or so.  It has become much more empirical, more interested in institutions, and somewhat more realistic about human behavior.  There is also more willingness to entertain models with unconventional features, like multiple equilibria, speculative bubbles, increasing returns and imperfect competition.  The rate of change may be less than what some of us wanted, but it has been substantial all the same.  On the other hand, however, there is immense inertia in the textbook market.  Part of this is our fault: intro teachers want to recycle their notes, exercises and exams.  They want to teach more or less the same course this year they taught last year, with the occasional tweak to liven it up.  Of course, there are few incentives for most economists to knock themselves out reinventing the intro course.  But a lot of the blame also  has to be put on the textbook publishers.  A modern commercial textbook is a behemoth, the product of an immense army of editors, graphics people, marketers and other staff.  It’s a big bet in a big lottery.  And just like Hollywood, the publishers try to produce blockbusters by slightly varying the formula of last year’s blockbuster.  There’s a saying—I think attributable to David Colander—that intro texts have to abide by the 15% rule: no book can be more than 15% different from the others and still see the light of day.

This explains the title of my two books.  They are written from the ground up to reflect, as best as I am able, the state of economics today, as if no previous textbook had ever been written.  They are fresh starts.

3. Who are they for?  I think there are three potential audiences.  First, many economists may be feeling frustrated with the existing array of texts.  They are embarrassed by teaching subject matter that their discipline has largely moved on from, while not covering key concepts that underlie contemporary research.  Some may be swayed by high-profile student protests, demanding more relevance and a less doctrinaire attitude in undergraduate economics.  They may also be gravitating to the critical thinking–active learning paradigm in teaching as they see colleagues in other disciplines doing.  These economists may be willing to adopt a new kind of textbook in spite of the obvious costs in time and discarding prior investments.

The second group is heterodox economists.  If they are looking for a textbook that trumpets their particular brand of heterodoxy they will be disappointed.  But they may be content with a book they don’t have to teach against.

The third group is not necessarily academic at all.  It consists of people who are curious about what economics is up to in the post-2008 world and would like to read a literate, open-minded but comprehensive account.  I’ve tried to make these texts engaging—not in the disjointed manner of the collage-style products of the big commercial houses (which seem to be in a permanent state of fighting off boredom), but in the form of a narrative, the way a good science journalist presents science.  Maybe there are readers out there who are eager for a pair of books about contemporary economics that doesn’t shy away from the technicalities, but also looks at it from a broader cultural, political and historical perspective.


MaxSpeak said...

Congratulations, Peter. How long did it take you to write the two books?

Peter Dorman said...

Thanks, Max. Ten years. I started them in 2003. But I was doing tons of introductory teaching at the same time.

The surprise, though, is that my work hardly ended when the manuscripts were finished. Since my publisher's business model doesn't include marketing, at least not in the textbook-pushing, course adoption sense, all that has fallen on me. And I don't really know very much about this game. It's possible these books will just vanish without a trace.

MaxSpeak said...

If I get review copies I'll plug them on my site, which is frequently linked to by DeLong at the 'Equitablog' and Mark Thoma at Economists View. Who knows, might start an avalanche.

Peter Dorman said...

Max, I'll post this up here so anyone else who may be reading can try this out. Springer won't send any more physical copies for review, but you can get the e-version at their website. Use the links in the original post and register with them. (You can't skip this step.) Then request an electronic copy for review. That should work, and if it doesn't let me know.