Thursday, December 8, 2011

More on Teaching Intro

Peter started a discussion here. And Nick Rowe at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, under the title "God and Man at Yale" has another one, with hundreds of comments. I'll add my two cents. This is a comment I sent to WCI actually.

I want an Intro. Course to show students "how to think like an economist," but I also want some time devoted to the limitations of such thinking. I used to teach the course with David Friedman's *Hidden Order* and Robert Frank's *Choosing the Right Pond*, so they could see how the same methodology - rationality plus equilibrium - could give you very different political-economic visions. But the methodology itself -whether wielded in support of libertarian or left-liberal politics - ought not to be accepted uncritically. So I would assign Dickens' *Hard Times*. The students hated the Dickens, so I dropped it and substituted Amartya Sen's "Rational Fools." I wanted them to understand how the phenomenon of "commitment", as Sen uses it, by which he means "counter-preferential choice" is a deep critique of the conception of rationality that economists use. Unlike the behavioral critique, which simply documents all the ways people make mistakes in maximizing, a Senian critique says that human beings are more than utility maximizers. As the late lamented David Foster Wallace puts the point in a discussion of Dostoevsky, "[Dostoevsky’s] concern was always with what it is to be a human being—that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal." I don't think this deep critique cuts either right or left, but I think we do a disservice to our students by not exposing them to it. The fact is that most of them when they come to us are already "thinking like economists" in important and pernicious respects: they are cynical about the possibility of principled behavior, they are sure that behind every alleged "value" lies a preference, they are nihilistic about normative authority. The have been brought up, after all, in the age of "sophisters, calculators and economists."

At an AEA meeting one year long ago, there was a session on "Teaching the Principles Course" I attended, which was really just advertising for two new texts by the presenters, one of whom was Robert Frank. (The text he was introducing is the one I have used in the Micro split ever since - it's a great book.) Frank talked about how the book encouraged the students to be economic naturalists, and to apply the economic way of thinking to everything they came across. I asked a question: suppose a student comes to your office hours and thanks you for teaching him the EWT. He was in a long-term relationship and felt that he owed his partner loyalty, but that after learning that sunk costs shouldn't play any part in guiding one's choices, he decided - given that the net benefit of the relationship going forward was negative- that he owed his partner nothing, and consequently was dis-loyal. Frank seemed genuinely at a loss for a response and after the session sought me out to talk more about it.


David Friedman said...

Some of what you want might be done within an expanded version of the economic approach, taking account of commitment strategies, the function of the emotions--Robert Frank has a book on that--and the like. And some of it can be done using evolutionary psychology, which feels right to an economist because the basic structure--constrained maximization--is the same, even if the maximand is reproductive success instead of utility.

Thus I have an explanation of the endowment effect, which sees it as a hardwired commitment strategy whose function is to support property rights in a world without external enforcement, and similar evolutionary explanations of some of the other behavioral econ results.

How much of what you want can be gotten in that way I don't know. An alternative is simply to tell the students that the economic way of thinking isn't a complete explanation of the world, but it is the partial explanation being taught in this course.

kevin quinn said...

David: thanks for the comments. I know Frank's *Passions Within Reason*; I will look at the link to your own work. In general, though, I am skeptical about naturalized accounts of norms, in particular of naturalized accounts of normative authority. But that's another discussion. By the way, I am a big admirer of *Hidden Order*, so thanks for writing it.

David Friedman said...

On the subject of economic theory supporting a range of political positions ... . You might want to look at the extended exchange between Robert Frank and me on my bog a while back.

should find all of it as well as a few other posts.