Archive for the 'Basic Economic Question' Category

Jan 14 2008

When markets work…

Michael Munger, Bosses Don’t Wear Bunny Slippers, If Markets Are So Great, Why Are There Firms: Library of Economics and Liberty

The other day when we introduced our unit on market failure, we began by revisiting the concept of free markets as mechanisms for allocating scarce resources efficiently. As I was reading blogs tonight, I stumbled upon this blog post by Michael Munger, professor of political economy at Duke University, where he shares an anecdote he uses when introducing the allocating power of markets through the price mechanism:

When I teach political economy, I start with the neoclassical theory of consumption, and then cover production. And I show students how miraculous is it that the actions of millions of people who have never met can be directed by prices. Resources move toward their highest valued use, and consumption goods are delivered to the consumers who want them.

For example, the United States promoted ethanol as an auto fuel. This sharply increased the price of corn worldwide. As Brazilian reporter Kieran Gartlan put it: “Higher prices are leading Brazilian farmers to plant more second crop corn this year, and the country’s modest corn exports are expected to expand [from 42 million tonnes to 48 million tonnes, an increase of 230 million bushels.]” (DTN, March 2, 2007, emphasis mine).

No one directed the Brazilian farmers to shift to corn production. The article puts it perfectly: “Higher prices are leading farmers….” The leadership comes from the prices themselves! The farmers may have had no idea why the price of corn had increased, to $4.00 per bushel. (After all, Brazil uses sugar, not corn, to produce its ethanol.) But Brazilian corn production increased within a year, by nearly 15%. No one made the farmers switch; they made choices. Other corn producers, in Argentina, Mexico, and several African countries, followed suit. No one talked about it, no one gave any orders; prices led them.

The reason I post this excerpt from professor Munger’s blog now is that it serves as a great response to a student who on the first day of our market failure class posited that perhaps the government could do a better job of deciding what goods and services and how much of them should be produced in an economy.

Yes, markets fail, and for many reasons: a concentration of power among a few large firms, an underallocation of resources towards goods that have spillover benefits, the over-provision of goods that have spillover costs, the failure of the market to provide public goods: these are examples of how market fail.

But when markets work, they really work! The efficiency of resource allocation that results from free, competitive, markets is unrivaled by any central planning agency. Munger’s example above is a simple illustration of this allocative power of markets and prices.

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Oct 23 2007

WTO – a podcast introduction, continued…

Introduction to the WTO, continued…

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May 30 2007

The Hegemony of Neo-classical Economics

Two heterodox economists respond to an article I blogged about last week, Hip Heterodoxy, published in the Nation, written by Chris Hayes.

Challenging Orthodox Economics – Part I | TPMCafe by Thomas Palley

Economics Outside the Mainstream | TPMCafe by David Ruccio

As our year winds down and we begin getting our materials and lessons in order for our next batch of AP Econ students, it’s unlikely we’ll pause to ask a rather important question: “Is the economics I’m teaching my students the correct and immutable truth?”

After all, isn’t economics still a young science? It’s only been a few generations since Smith, Riccardo and Locke laid the groundwork for what has become the mainstream, neo-classical/neo-Keynesian theory that makes up every major economics text and principles course out there. Who’s to say that in another one hundred years these views, products of the late 20th century themselves, will still be considered the correct solutions for dealing with the economic problem?

As mentioned in a previous post “Keynesian vs. Neo-classical Economics – and what is Heterodox Economics?”, the field loosely described as “heterodox economics” raises difficult questions of human behavior and thinking that challenges the neo-classical view of perfectly rational actors and the efficiency and perfectibility of free markets (the view that we teach in AP Economics). David Ruccio, econ professor at Notre Dame, laments on mainstream economists:

All reasonable arguments are accepted in the marketplace of ideas. Except they (mainstream economists) never read any heterodox economics, and have no idea how the hegemony of their favorite theory shuts out all other ideas…That’s the situation that heterodox economists are trying to change. By using economic theories other than those of the mainstream… By forming journals and associations apart from those of the mainstream (in which their ideas never get aired). And by challenging the mainstream conception of the discipline itself
(including its notions of what science is, and what it means to “think like an economist”).

We do heterodox economics, or what some refer to as political economy—as against economics (which, as Chris correctly argues, has become identified with a tiny number of theoretical approaches). We write about rates of exploitation and the role of power in increasing inequality and the existence of patriarchy and structural racism. Not only do we want to argue that economic actors are sometimes irrational or guided by norms and values; some of us also want to analyze economic institutions and events without even starting from individual actors. Or efficiency. Or constrained optimization.

So, do you feel guilty yet about teaching only the mainstream view in your course? Don’t fret, even Professor Ruccio has to teach his students the neo-classical approach; here’s how he deals with the status quo in his courses:

In all honesty, I mostly prefer not to read maintream economics these days. Either it says nothing of interest, or it gets me very angry. But I teach it, and I teach it in a way that is more rigorous than my mainstream colleagues. Because I teach its basic assumptions (and not as a kind of common sense) and because I present alternative views, heterodox economics. And then I read and do heterodox economics, independently of the mainstream. Because if we spend all our time worrying about mainstream economics, attempting to do mainstream economics (with a tweak here and a changed assumption there), we’ll never get around to developing alternatives.

Professor Ruccio makes an important point here. Before students can become agents of positive change, aware and capable of making the world a better place (and the field of economics a better science) they must first know what needs fixing. I know as much as any AP Econ teacher how rushed this course is, how little time is really left for discussions beyond the basic principles in the syllabus; but in the future, I think I’ll challenge myself and my students to take a little time and find out what alternative approaches to the economic problem are being researched, published, and put into action out there. Technology, the web, blogs: these are the tools that will enable us to easily connect our students to alternative, heterodox economics despite the hectic pace of our AP course. And if your school has access to online journal databases, here’s a few suggestions for economics publications that give a voice to heterodox economists like Professor Ruccio:

The Review of Income and Wealth, the Cambridge Journal of Economics, the European Journal of Comparative Economics, Research in Economic History, Industrial and Corporate Change, CES Ifo Economic Studies, the Eastern Economic Journal, the BNL Quarterly Review and The Economist’s Voice.

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May 27 2007

Keynesian vs. Neo-classical Economics – and what is Heterodox Economics?

Hip Heterodoxy

I just found a link to this long and interesting article about a fledgling field called “heterodox” economics. Heterodox is defined as “not in accordance with established or accepted doctrines or opinions, esp. in theology; unorthodox.”

In the case of heterodox economists, what they don’t believe is the
neoclassical model that anchors the economics profession. Classical
economics refers to the theories laid out by Adam Smith and David
Ricardo in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which emphasized
the power of the “invisible hand” of the market to promote the division
of labor and economic growth. Smith famously summed up the recipe for
prosperity as “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of
justice,” with “all the rest being brought about by the natural course
of things.”

There’s a lot to digest in this five page article from the Nation. I think I’ll have to blog it in a few separate posts. This will also be a great article for use in my AP Econ course when we compare the neo-classical version of the vertical Aggregate Supply to the Keynesian horizontal AS curve, and the implications therein regarding use of monetary and fiscal policies to achieve macroeconomic stability.

One line that jumps out at me right now is:

Indeed, the cradle for much of our policy discussions can be found in
the first chapter of just about any introductory economics textbook,
where the basic precepts of the neoclassical framework are described
under the rubric of “thinking like an economist.”

Again, I continue to come across evidence that an education in Economics is absolutely crucial to understanding important issues in all realms of society today. As I continue digesting this important analysis and history of competing economic ideologies, I will continue to think about how to use this in my class next fall, and blog any ideas that come to mind. If you have the time and interest, give this article a read and post your comments here!

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May 11 2007

Why learning Economics is SO important!

caveman economics, not so complicatedHere’s a fascinating article about the importance of learning economics in order to overcome our innate, perhaps genetically ingrained understanding of human exchanges as a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain comes at another’s loss.

Paul H. Rubin – Evolution, Immigration and Trade – washingtonpost.com

Rubin finds several fascinating links between evolutionary biology, psychology, and economics.

“Our primitive ancestors lived in a world that was essentially static; there was little societal or technological change from one generation to the next. This meant that our ancestors lived in a world that was zero sum — if a particular gain happened to one group of humans, it came at the expense of another.”

“Economists have argued for more than two centuries that voluntary trade, whether domestic or international, is positive sum: it benefits both parties, or else the exchange wouldn’t occur.”

This ingrained belief of one person’s gain coming at the expense of someone else leads to dangerous policies such as protection and trade barriers, which as we know limit an economy’s growth and improvements in standards of living. Therefore, learning economics is as important to society’s progress as learning to read is to an individual’s education. Rubin concludes with this interesting insight:

“A useful analogy is between speech and reading. All humans growing up in a normal environment learn to speak, but reading must be taught because it does not come naturally… A deeper understanding of economics is like reading — it must be taught.

America’s success in lowering its barriers to outsiders shows that we can and do learn. But like reading, we must teach each generation anew.”

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