Five Books to Supplement Teaching Undergraduate Economics
By Nathanael Snow
I’ve been teaching economics to undergraduates for almost a decade, and I always find primary textbooks to be too insufficient and dry to consider a course complete. So, as many professors will do, I assign supplemental books to help students make a different connection between the ideas we use in the classroom and their everyday lives or intellectual pursuits.
These books represent my personal favorites over the whole undergraduate curriculum that I have taught, rather than the best for any specific course.
Used in Introduction to Economics for non-majors.
Economics often, and particularly in macroeconomics, intersects with politics. The appropriate role of a political economist is to demonstrate to the public in deliberation the relevant opportunity costs of alternative sets of rules. But it won’t matter what the political economist says if the public in deliberation are talking past one another. Kling provides a framework for understanding why public discussion falls apart, and he offers solutions. I use a class exercise in which each student presents a political issue from a perspective different from her own, seeking to use the language of the assigned political group so effectively that someone from that group would not identify the speaker as an impostor. This “Ideological Turing Test” as proposed by Bryan Caplan is expanded upon by Kling. Students learn the difference between positive and normative arguments, and how to converse in diverse groups like the classroom.
- Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics.
Used in Intermediate Microeconomics.
Armen A. Alchian and William R. Allen, in the primary text for my Intermediate Microeconomics class, Universal Economics, quote Alain A. Enthoven saying “The economic theory [most policy makers use] is the theory most of us learned as sophomores.” Students need to internalize economic intuition, the economic way of thinking, more than models and mathematical formulas. Sowell’s book is appropriate for anyone with a good high school education who wants to understand the world around them through an economic lens. Sowell provides colorful examples for every principle, though I would have been happier if he had included footnotes.
- Richard Whately, Easy Lessons on Money Matters: For the Use of Young People.
Used in Principles of Microeconomics.
The particular scholar will recall Richard Whately for having coined the term “catallactics” to describe the study of exchanges. Economists such as Francis Edgeworth, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and James Buchanan have claimed “catallactics” as a proper constraint on the field of study for the political economist. In Easy Lessons Whately popularizes the fundamental principles of economics for children in grade school. Though written almost 200 years ago the lessons on money, exchange, commerce, coin, value, wages, rich and poor (income distribution), capital, taxes, letting and hiring (factors of production), and interference with men’s dealings with one another (constitutions and regulations) demonstrate Whately’s proto-marginalist mastery of the economic perspective. I first assigned this to students in my History of Economic Thought course who then heartily recommended it for Principles of Microeconomics classes.
- Russ Roberts, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism. (Editor’s note: There’s an #EconlibReads for that!)
Used in Principles of Macroeconomics.
Roberts’ narrative of television manufacturing in the United States has started to feel a bit dated. However, it remains in my opinion the best way for students to learn the ramifications of protectionism for prosperity and choice. I also use Roberts’ The Price of Everything to help students learn the importance of spontaneous orders, but The Choice is my choice between the two, especially as protectionism again has entered the public debate.
Used in Macroeconomics.
Kling appears twice on my list because he explains complex interactions with the clarity and iterative persistence necessary to penetrate reluctant minds with alien conceptions—to paraphrase Herbert Spencer. This is perhaps the happy byproduct of Kling’s many years’ teaching economics to high school students. Most of this book is a pedestrian walk through the fundamental principles of economics, explained as a fundamental framework for understanding the world rather than as a social science capable of falsifiability, as in physics. Lurking beneath Kling’s argument is a focus on the consequences of creative destruction in advanced economies. Kling’s lesson reaches its zenith in chapter 9, a long read, but the most innovative in the book. Structural dis-coordination that results from dynamic change may require different responses than the more familiar frictional unemployment experienced in earlier stages of development. The Fed does not have as much power as its supporters and critics would attribute to it. Kling’s book provides an important contrast to the mainstream presentation of macroeconomic principles, and is especially appropriate for the skeptical and curious student.
Nathanael Snow is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Economics at Ball State University.