In a previous post, I praised Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek for spreading economic wisdom to people in letters to the editor. This is the story Don told me about how he got hooked on economics. I tell this story whenever I teach the economics of price ceilings, for reasons you’ll see shortly.

In the winter of 1977, Don was distinctly unimpressed by his experience as an undergrad in Louisiana and was about to drop out. He came from a working-class background and his mother persuaded him to stick it out for one more quarter [semester?]. He looked around for classes that seemed interesting and signed up for principles of economics.

In the northeastern United States, the winter of 1977 was particularly harsh. I remember it well because it was my second year on the faculty at the University of Rochester. Seventy miles west, in Buffalo, an elderly couple froze to death that winter because their natural gas had been cut off. The reason for the shortage: price controls. Both the fact of price controls and the couple’s horrible fate made the national news. But virtually none of the reporters put the two facts together.

One day in class, his professor showed how a price ceiling causes a shortage. Don grokked it immediately and said to himself, “Oh my gosh, that’s why that couple in Buffalo froze.” He saw the power of economics to explain the otherwise mysterious world around him. He was hooked. He later told me that those three lines–the supply curve, the demand curve, and the price ceiling–are the most important three lines in economics.

BTW, in my introductory lecture in economics in my distance learning class, I “sell” economics by telling them that they’ll understand a lot about the world that is otherwise a mystery. At the end of each break, I play music to bring them back into the room. The first song I play is always Norah Jones, “Come Away With Me.”