Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What I want you to learn

One of our colleagues from another department was asking what we try to teach students in our core courses. Here is what I told him I want students to take away from econ 151:

Long-term economic growth is the consequence of division of labor, specialization, and exchange.

Just because both parties benefit from a transaction, they don't necessarily benefit equally. The distribution of the benefits of specialization and exchange depends on the relative power of the parties.

People's behavior is the consequence of both their preferences and their constraints. If you don't understand another's behavior, don't be too quick to attribute it to preferences or values. Look also at the choices they have. On the other side, don't attribute all behavior to economic incentives. Incentives matter, but values and preferences matter too--sometimes more.

Economic efficiency is desirable, but it is not the only thing we're looking for. We also want distributive justice, ecological sustainability, and caring relationships within the economy. Sometimes there are tradeoffs among these different goals. However, it is good also to look for ways to achieve more than one of them simultaneously.

When people disagree about public policy, it is usually not because they want to achieve different goals. More often they disagree about the analysis: that is, what policies will bring about the effects they desire. But these theoretical disagreements often have value judgments at bottom: What is a good theory? What drives human behavior? Can other people be trusted? It is here that "worldviews" matter.

Too long an answer, but as some great writer said, I don't have enough time to give you a short one.