The debate about what’s right/wrong with introductory economics, which has raged intermittently since the financial crisis, is back again (here, here and here). I’m preparing a paper on this topic for a conference this summer, so it’s been on my mind. Here is a structuring proposal:
There are three aspects to what people like or don’t like (often the latter) with Econ 101. The first is pedagogy—the way introductory econ is presented in the classroom. This includes issues like the role of lectures vs workshops and projects, the balance between marching through models and exploring applications and empirical debates, and behind it all, whether the main purpose is to induce students to accept particular economic doctrines or to cultivate critical thinking on open-ended (but not anything-goes) economic questions.
The second is the intellectual content of the principles course, particularly as it is encoded in the leading textbooks. There is a lot of drag on the textbook front, and the gap between standard 101 content and the current trajectory of the discipline is arguably wider than it has been in generations.
The third is the state of economics itself. Some of what critics object to in intro econ is an accurate representation of how most economists think and the assumptions on which their research is based. For instance, for every behavioral economist who tweaks U-max, there are fifty whose work is based on toy models firmly situated in Umaxia. That includes not only most New Keynesian macro, but the micro models that apply welfare criteria to policy choice. All of the literature on “optimal” carbon prices, for instance, is based on the assumptions that (a) there is this universal substance called utility and (b) everyone acts at all times to maximize it, so that, in the absence of market failure, prices convey utility information. If Econ 101 takes a narrow, unrealistic line on utility and human decision-making, it could just mean that the limitations of that view are more obvious at that level than they are higher up.
Of course, these three dimensions overlap and influence one another; it’s somewhat artificial to put them in separate boxes. But I think debates over 101 can be benefit from being clearer about just what it is that irks us.