Last week, I got together with Russ Roberts of Cafe Hayek. Yesterday, I had lunch with Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution and two not-yet-blogging economists, Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan. Several topics came up that are worth some comment.

  1. Economics journals and blogs. What can be done to raise the signal-to-noise ratio of economics journals? At one point, I suggested that blogs could provide a better filter than economics journals. That is, one could imagine bloggers combing through academic research papers and picking the most interesting ones, rather than having papers go to editors and referees of journals. I think that would be a better form of intermediation. However, there needs to be a reward system for the type of blogger who acts as a neutral referee-editor type.
  2. Economics and math. There is a longstanding debate within the profession over whether mathematics makes us better (more precision, more rigor) or worse (lose sight of what is interesting). Alex thinks that the profession has gotten better over the past 15 years at focusing on what is interesting and in emphasizing empirical work relative to theory. I’m not sure. My long experience outside of academics, in a business setting, makes me a lot less eager to teach economics using calculus and a lot more interested in conveying the guesswork and trial-and-error aspect of economic activity.
  3. Distance learning. I think that there is a potential for there to emerge a specialized organization that teaches tens of thousands of first-year economics students, as opposed to leaving it to the different departments at different colleges. I’ve become enamored of the possibilities for distance learning. I may be wrong on that. Robin pointed out that we’ve had the ability to send around films for 50 years, and distance learning has not emerged from that. He said that few students have the self-discipline needed for distance learning.

    I have a couple of counters to that. First, I think that there is something physically different about sitting close to a computer and reading/listening to one of my lectures and sitting on your couch watching a film.

    Second, I think that the issue of self-discipline can be overcome by requiring assignments to be turned in frequently. With assignments due twice a week, no student can fall behind unnoticed.

    My concern with distance learning is that you might lose the opportunities for peer teaching. That is, sometimes it is easier for a student to explain something to another student than it is for a teacher to explain it. I think that the best distance learning would include some group assignments, where four to six students who live close to one another meet to discuss and complete the assignment.

  4. First-year economic content. I am really dissatisfied with the AP economics curriculum and with first-year economics content in general. Too much emphasis on the graphical apparatus, and not enough emphasis on getting students to overcome their biases against markets, against trade with strangers, etc.

    I think that the best that can be said for the current curriculum is that it helps prepare somebody for more advanced economics courses. Of course, I think that the advanced courses are too mathematical, so I am not ready to concede that this is a plus.

    But for someone who is not going on in economics, it is easy to focus on cramming into short-term memory the ability to do tricks with supply-demand diagrams or production possibility curves or average and marginal cost curves. Instead, what I would hope to do is have students get into their long-term memory some core ideas of economics.

    For example, I was gratified that at the end of the first unit in my course, where I asked each student to write a one paragraph on what was for that student the highlight of the unit. One student wrote that she understood, but was not sure that she believed, the economic argument that low-skilled workers would be better off with more Wal-Marts than with fewer Wal-Marts.

My entrepreneurial side is intrigued by all four of these. But I think I could develop a real passion related to the latter two.

For Discussion. Relative to typical private-sector industries, is the academic community particularly resistant to change? If so, why?