By Arnold Kling
The online Wall Street Journal hosts a discussion with Russell Roberts and William Polley on the topic of economic education. Roberts writes,
Whenever I teach a seminar on basic economics, I always survey the audience: What proportion of the American labor force earns the minimum wage or less and what is the standard of living of the average American today relative to 100 years ago?
Even among highly-educated groups such as journalists or congressional staffers, the median answer is depressingly similar — they think 20% of the American work force earns the minimum wage or less. In fact, the actual number is something less than 3%.
I’d argue that part of the problem is the mechanical way that economics used to be (and sometimes still is) taught at the introductory level. Many people in the media and in positions of authority, if they took economics at all, learned a very stylized version of the subject. They may have taken courses that consisted of solving two equations in two variables for supply and demand, calculating income/expenditure equilibrium with fixed prices, and the like. This stylized approach was not always directly relevant to the real world at the introductory level. The perceived disconnect between economics and the “real world” haunts us to this day. Solving simultaneous equations is not considered relevant anymore by the people we are most trying to reach. Finally, unless you have a deep understanding of the model, there’s a good chance you’ll misinterpret something
For Discussion. If your goal were to have first-year economics understand, say, the role of markets in addressing the disruption in gasoline supplies caused by a hurricane, how would you propose to teach this?