Physics Applied to Economics
By David Henderson
When I teach my Energy Economics course, in the first problem set, one of the problems is the following:
Name an energy activity that the government is currently engaged in that you think should be eliminated and give your reasons why. Or name an energy activity that the government is currently engaged in that you think should be kept and give your reasons why. Or name an energy activity that the government is not currently engaged in that you think the government should be engaged in and give your reasons why. Do only one of these three. You will be judged on how well you make the case, not on whether I agree with you. Part of a good argument is sound, clear reasoning from premises. Another part is making sure your facts are right. Your argument may be moral or practical, or any mixture of the two. (Economic arguments are generally under the heading of practical). Your answer must also be well-written; that is, it must avoid grammatical mistakes such as misplaced modifiers, etc.
I do it early in the course for a few reasons:
1. To get the students writing something and having to make an argument;
2. To find out “where the students are.” This helps guide me in future lectures;
3. To convince the students early that I won’t bite their heads off it they disagree with me;
4. To give the students feedback on what a good argument is, good grammar, etc.
I also grade this one problem more leniently than the others.
One of the pleasures of grading their write-ups, whose word length must be between 300 and 700, is seeing them discuss things I don’t know about and seeing them stating things in a fresh way that I had never thought of. This post is about the latter.
One of my students, Cyrus Anderson [he gave me permission to name him], criticized government subsidies to energy. This was the paragraph that I particularly liked:
I have been searching the web for the true nature of energy subsidies and all I can really ascertain is that the U.S. government is highly involved and in nearly every form of energy production in existence. I cannot tell which overall direction we are being pushed in, only that there is some pushing in nearly every direction possible. If physics is any indication, controlling an object by exerting force in every direction at once is a very inefficient way of controlling the movement of any body in motion. This is true for energy subsidies as well.