Give It the Old College Try

(Editor’s note: This article is a response to Marilyn Flowers’ article here.)

Many years ago a student of mine invited a representative of the United Auto Workers to speak before our university’s Economics Club. Not surprisingly, the speaker called for additional restrictions on foreign cars imports and claimed that such a policy would generate benefits for all Americans. If more workers had good paying UAW jobs, he argued, those workers would spend more, generating more employment opportunities for other Americans, increasing tax revenue for the government and increasing appropriations to state universities.

My students and I took exception to his claims. They made the point that all the benefits he alluded to were offset by costs to domestic consumers—and then some. I am not sure if he understood our objection. I am quite sure, however, that his position on the “evils of imports” would not have changed even if he had.

My colleague and friend Marilyn Flowers is correct when she argues that economic knowledge is unlikely to trump economic interests when voters form their policy positions. But it seems to me that dissuading people from pursuing their own economic interest by political means is hardly the point of economic education.

Our UAW friend did have an economic narrative—a naïve economic theory—that had an air of plausibility. One can certainly understand how in the absence of an alternative a bright young person could accept this union member’s mercantilist perspective as gospel truth. If the student came from a family in the auto industry or from an auto town, such a narrative would be especially appealing. 

But the hallmark of a liberally educated person is the capacity to recognize truth that extends beyond one’s own purview.  As French economic writer Frederic Bastiat described the difference between a bad economist and a good one: “the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.” 

Economists in an academic setting have the unique ability and obligation to offer good economic analysis. Heaven knows there are many non-economists quite willing to offer bad economic analysis. Indeed, most issues discussed on a college campus cry out for economic insights. Providing these insights is part of our job, even if we are not likely to persuade everyone of the wisdom of our thinking. All we can do is offer educational opportunities—we cannot assure they will be appreciated. But we know they will not be appreciated if they are not aired.

Is the best way of spreading economic insight a university curricular requirement that all students must pass a college-level economics class?

I tend to agree with Marilyn that, given the current realities of higher education, such a mandate is unwise. Economic lessons do not come easy to most; mastering economic concepts requires discipline and effort far beyond that usually exerted in other principles-level courses. To mix some metaphors, economists may be called to cast our bread on the waters but we should not be casting our pearls to the swine. Well, maybe not swine—but at least not to the unprepared. Nevertheless, I do not see economists primarily as technicians for policy wonks, but rather as critics and educators ever mindful of Fredrich Hayek’s words that “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

(For the original article by Marilyn Flowers, Professor of Economics at Ball State University, see here.)