Worldly wisdom (in my dreams)

A couple of weeks ago I got this email.

Dear Prof. Gruen,

I’m fifteen years old, I live in Memphis, Tennessee, and I’m very interested in economics. Recently I came across your interview on the Economic Rockstar podcast. I have a blog called Ceteris Numquam Paribus, where I post short interviews with economists such as Dierdre McCloskey, Diane Coyle, and Peter Temin. I was wondering two things:

1. If you were king for a day and could require all students to read one book in the field of economics, what would it be and why?

2. What course that is not normally required for an undergraduate economics major do you think all students should be required to take, and why?

Since I am familiar with the concept of opportunity cost, I understand if you are unable to reply. Thank you for your time!

Sincerely,

Joseph Gray

My response is below the fold.

Hi Joseph,

Very nice to hear from you, and good on you for your energy.

I’ve done my best on your questions, though my answers are probably a bit unusual. You’re welcome to publish them if you’d like.

Nicholas

If you could mandate that every student read one book in the field of economics, what would it be?

While I read plenty of economics books, almost invariably my ideas are cooked up in my head and talking to people – and this is a big deal for me. Most people think economics is 75% learning the discipline and 25% applying the ideas. I’d say it’s the other way round. Most of the important stuff comes in the way (usually pretty commonplace) ideas are deployed. A lot of economists are quite unaware of this. Thus for instance, as I try to document here, they’ll deploy arguments like competitive neutrality in one way, blissfully unware that they could be applied in other ways. Virtually all my work comes from applying in somewhat new ways the simple and powerful ideas of our discipline that any economics graduate would recognise. For instance here’s how I deploy the idea of public and private goods in a slightly new way to generate what I think is a powerful way to see the economy and powerful new policy possibilities.

But if you want me to pick a book, I’d suggest John Kay’s The Truth about Markets (I think it may have had a different title in the US). It’s not more brilliant than other books or a stand out classic, but it’s a compelling romp through many of the important ideas in economics with a lot of moderation and commonsense at the same time as positive zeal for good, practical ideas and the huge contribution economics can make to improving millions – indeed billions – of ordinary human lives.

If you’d allow me to indulge myself and stray somewhat outside economics, but at least into political economy I’d also recommend David Van Reybrouk’s Against Elections, which explains some of the myriad problems with electoral democracy and proposes instead democracy by sortition – as occurs in juries in court cases. I’ve set out similar ideas and a model constitution in which power is shared between elected representatives and those selected by lot (based in a Westminster or British parliamentary system rather than a US congressional one) here and here.

A book I’m reading right now and loving is Matthew Crawford’s The World beyond your Head, which I thoroughly recommend.   

What course that is not normally required for an undergraduate economics major do you think all students should be required to take, and why?

I think the history of economic thought should be compulsory because it gives students perspective into other ways of looking at things. I have no problems with neoclassical economics being taught, but I’m dead against it being taught as the only way to do economics. Since it is so often taught that way, the history of economic thought can provoke some curiosity in students to look further afield. However even here if it is taught as if all previous economists were really just groping their way towards the way we think today then students can be largely protected from the good it can do them.

Indeed, for me it was my study of history proper – not economic history or the history of ideas – that helped me understand something about ideas that Steven Jobs commented upon:

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were [in general] no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

I outlined some of the influence studying history had on me briefly in the midst of a longish speech here (in Section V) and also here.

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