A Liberal Arts Approach to Economics

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nate,

Our conversation the other night provoked me to want to explain more how I teach economics. I have done two things this semester which make my economics class different from the run-of-the-mill class (not that the run-of-the-mill economics class is bad; even normie econ is pretty grand!).

Having a different approach, means more than having a different philosophy while following the old motions. It means truly different tactics. My overarching goal in teaching economics is not to teach students about financial flows, but to teach students about human choice. In this way, my outlook is broader, more humanistic, and less focused on the mathematics and more on the decision algorithms from which the mathematics is abstracted and given meaning. The math is important, but I care first and foremost about introducing the economic patterns which motivate the invention of mathematical insights.

Our standard curriculum consists of economics by McConnell, Brue, and Flynn and Marginal Revolution University videos and questions. But since we have academic freedom, we are not forcing ourselves in a speed run cram semester-long cram session to complete the entire AP curriculum. Instead, we have taken two high consequence detours. Likely a few more will follow.

The first is in expected value theory. What’s the value of this? Firstly, to think about just the simple application of algebra to normal life choices and situations. Secondly, to see that one can incorporate risk into one’s thinking about choices, and thirdly to pass on a surprisingly simple yet powerful and important mode for thinking through decisions. We calculated how many people you would want on a road trip to Juneau for cost sharing to be worth it, how to calculate the expected value of a military strike, and what the expected value of different driving habits are.

In morality, such a method is useful too. When deploying the principal of double-effect in moral decision-making after all the major hurdles have been crossed the governing issue of moral action remains prudence, to take proportional measures to achieve our goals in the face of uncertainty.  Expected value along with marginal thinking and causal diagrams (discussion for another day), I think should become standard equipment in the category of prudential thinking, which means I am also happily committed to a theory of virtue which requires using tools like these.

The second difference is the way I allow international trade to alter the course. From international trade we quickly run into issues of globalization and automation. MRU has a little curriculum on the topic called Globalization, Robots, and You, an essentially depressing look at how difficult it is to compete in a globalized and automated world. I noticed as the students worked through the ideas, they both made insights and at the same time felt somewhat powerless. As much as I like the lessons, they leave something to be desired: an idea of what civilization is for and how to offer a unique contribution. On uniqueness, we talked about the combinatorics. If there are 500 skills and you possess three without being the best at any one, you can still quite easily become the best person who has that set of three skills. (500*499*498).

I then offered the students another way of thinking: two articles from 80,000 Hours on high-impact careers and career stages. And then we close with a self-assessment “flower exercise” from What Color is Your Parachute which I think forces the students to engage with their own individual preferences in the context of trying to both do good (vis-à-vis culture) and do well (vis-à-vis civilization).

Then as we dive into discussions on labor economics, the students engage the questions from a place of curiosity and personal interest.

What I’ve outlined in brief is my liberal arts approach to economics education so far: an emphasis on passing on those habits of thought and intellectual tools which make for personally free and moral characters. Some people shy away from discussion of the moral import of education. I embrace it. Intelligence must meet action, and voluntary action must be directed towards good ends.

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