The Dismal Education

Published: December 16, 2011

Chi Birmingham

THE stereotypes about economists are well known: that we’re selfish Grinches; that we don’t read human interest stories because they don’t interest us; that the only reason we don’t sell our children is that we think they’ll be worth more later.

But are the stereotypes true? And if so is the cause nature or nurture? In other words, are selfish people disproportionately likely to become economists? Or is there something about being an economist (or being on the receiving end of economics education) that makes people selfish?

Academic research suggests that there’s a good deal of truth to the stereotype. Many studies have looked at how economists behave in what are called public goods situations. A key feature of these situations is that you can benefit from public goods even if you don’t contribute to them. You can watch PBS without making a donation; you can enjoy clean air even if you drive a car that pollutes. Such goods, however, give rise to the so-called free-rider problem: acting selfishly makes sense for each individual (why sacrifice if you don’t have to?) but as more and more people choose to act selfishly, the good disappears and everyone loses.

Public goods run counter to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” theory in that self-interested behavior by individuals does not, as the theory would have it, lead to good outcomes for society as a whole. These situations flummox just about everybody — look at all the trouble that nations and individuals are having in dealing with climate change — but economists and economics students appear to be especially likely to free-ride and act in ways that are “anti-social” rather than “pro-social.”

My recent research with the economist Elaina Rose, published in August in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, has looked at a real-life public goods situation faced by students at the University of Washington. During our study period (1999 to 2002), when students went online to register for classes each quarter, they were asked if they wanted to donate $3 to support WashPIRG, a left-leaning activist group. Students were also asked if they wanted to donate $3 to Affordable Tuition Now (ATN), a group that lobbied for “sensible tuition rates, quality financial aid and adequate funding.”

You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that’s mostly beside the point. Regardless of the groups’ actual social value, a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute; after all, a single $3 donation is not going to make a noticeable difference in tuition rates.

Our data showed that each group received donations from about 10 percent of the students each quarter. Although students remained anonymous, we could look at all of the 8,743 members of our data set and determine what their majors were, when they took economics classes (if at all) and whether or not they donated to ATN or WashPIRG during each quarter of our study period.

In line with previous research, what we found supported the Grinch stereotype. About 5 percent of economics majors donated to WashPIRG in a given quarter, compared with 8 percent for other arts and sciences majors. A similar divide — 10 percent versus almost 15 percent — occurred with respect to donations to ATN.

We also found evidence that the giving behavior of students who became economics majors was driven by nature, not nurture: taking economics classes did not have a significant negative effect on later giving by economics majors.

But taking economics classes did have a significant negative effect on later giving by students who did not become economics majors. One interpretation of these results is that students who were not economics majors suffered a “loss of innocence” after taking an economics class, presumably because of exposure to certain ideas (like the invisible hand) or certain people (like economics teachers).

In contrast, students who became economics majors did not suffer a loss of innocence. This may be because they lost their innocence in high school — other research suggests that pre-university exposure to economics reduces giving — or perhaps even because economics majors were “born guilty.”

Our research suggests that economics education could do a better job of providing balance. Learning about the shortcomings as well as the successes of free markets is at the heart of any good economics education, and students — especially those who are not destined to major in the field — deserve to hear both sides of the story.

Yoram Bauman, a co-author of “The Cartoon Introduction to Economics,” is an environmental economist at the University of Washington.


Is Modern Capitalism Sustainable?


Is Modern Capitalism Sustainable?

CAMBRIDGE – I am often asked if the recent global financial crisis marks the beginning of the end of modern capitalism. It is a curious question, because it seems to presume that there is a viable replacement waiting in the wings. The truth of the matter is that, for now at least, the only serious alternatives to today’s dominant Anglo-American paradigm are other forms of capitalism.

Continental European capitalism, which combines generous health and social benefits with reasonable working hours, long vacation periods, early retirement, and relatively equal income distributions, would seem to have everything to recommend it – except sustainability. China’s  Darwinian capitalism, with its fierce competition among export firms, a weak social-safety net, and widespread government intervention, is widely touted as the inevitable heir to Western capitalism, if only because of China’s huge size and consistent outsize growth rate. Yet China’s economic system is continually evolving.

Indeed, it is far from clear how far China’s political, economic, and financial structures will continue to transform themselves, and whether China will eventually morph into capitalism’s new exemplar. In any case, China is still encumbered by the usual social, economic, and financial vulnerabilities of a rapidly growing lower-income country.

Perhaps the real point is that, in the broad sweep of history, all current forms of capitalism are ultimately transitional. Modern-day capitalism has had an extraordinary run since the start of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago, lifting billions of ordinary people out of abject poverty.  Marxism and heavy-handed socialism have disastrous records by comparison. But, as industrialization and technological progress spread to Asia (and now to Africa), someday the struggle for subsistence will no longer be a primary imperative, and contemporary capitalism’s numerous flaws may loom larger.

First, even the leading capitalist economies have failed to price public goods such as clean air and water effectively. The failure of efforts to conclude a new global climate-change agreement is symptomatic of the paralysis.

Second, along with great wealth, capitalism has produced extraordinary levels of inequality. The growing gap is partly a simple byproduct of innovation and entrepreneurship. People do not complain about Steve Jobs’s success; his contributions are obvious. But this is not always the case: great wealth enables groups and individuals to buy political power and influence, which in turn helps to generate even more wealth. Only a few countries – Sweden, for example – have been able to curtail this vicious circle without causing growth to collapse.

A third problem is the provision and distribution of medical care, a market that fails to satisfy several of the basic requirements necessary for the price mechanism to produce economic efficiency, beginning with the difficulty that consumers have in assessing the quality of their treatment.

The problem will only get worse: health-care costs as a proportion of income are sure to rise as societies get richer and older, possibly exceeding 30% of GDP within a few decades. In health care, perhaps more than in any other market, many countries are struggling with the moral dilemma of how to maintain incentives to produce and consume efficiently without producing unacceptably large disparities in access to care.

It is ironic that modern capitalist societies engage in public campaigns to urge individuals to be more attentive to their health, while fostering an economic ecosystem that seduces many consumers into an extremely unhealthy diet. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, 34% of Americans are obese. Clearly, conventionally measured economic growth – which implies higher consumption – cannot be an end in itself.

Fourth, today’s capitalist systems vastly undervalue the welfare of unborn generations. For most of the era since the Industrial Revolution, this has not mattered, as the continuing boon of technological advance has trumped short-sighted policies. By and large, each generation has found itself significantly better off than the last. But, with the world’s population surging above seven billion, and harbingers of resource constraints becoming ever more apparent, there is no guarantee that this trajectory can be maintained.

Financial crises are of course a fifth problem, perhaps the one that has provoked the most soul-searching of late. In the world of finance, continual technological innovation has not conspicuously reduced risks, and might well have magnified them.

In principle, none of capitalism’s problems is insurmountable, and economists have offered a variety of market-based solutions. A high global price for carbon would induce firms and individuals to internalize the cost of their polluting activities. Tax systems can be designed to provide a greater measure of redistribution of income without necessarily involving crippling distortions, by minimizing non-transparent tax expenditures and keeping marginal rates low.  Effective pricing of health care, including the pricing of waiting times, could encourage a better balance between equality and efficiency. Financial systems could be better regulated, with stricter attention to excessive accumulations of debt.

Will capitalism be a victim of its own success in producing massive wealth? For now, as fashionable as the topic of capitalism’s demise might be, the possibility seems remote. Nevertheless, as pollution, financial instability, health problems, and inequality continue to grow, and as political systems remain paralyzed, capitalism’s future might not seem so secure in a few decades as it seems now.

Kenneth Rogoff is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and was formerly chief economist at the IMF.

The student debt crisis in one chart

Posted by  at 10:35 AM ET, 10/19/2011
The household credit market is slowly recovering: consumers are generally getting better at meeting their debt payments on time, becoming more willing to borrow, while banks are more willing to lend them money, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But there are some big exceptions to this trend. Americans have become seriously delinquent on an increasing percentage of their student loan debt. In fact, as USA Today notes*, outstanding student loans on track to hit a record high of more than $1 trillion this year, and “Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards,” according to the new data. [Contra USA Today , student loan debt is at $550 billion, and it’s still below credit-card debt, which is at $690 billion, according to the New York Fed figures. See update below.]Since the peak of the crisis in 2009, they’ve become increasingly able to pay off their credit cards and mortgages. But the student loan debt crisis has continued mostly unabated.
(New York Fed)Update: An earlier version of this post said that student loan debt has already hit $1 trillion. It’s projected to hit that figure this year.Update 2: Felix Salmon doubts USA Today’s conclusion that there’s projected to be $1 trillion in student loan debt this year. His own conclusion from the Fed data is that there’s $550 billion in student-loan debt—nowhere close to $1 trillion and still less than the $690 billion in credit card debt. I’ve checked the figures that Salmon references, and he’s correct. But other data outside the Fed confirm the $1 trillion figure ad student loans outpacing credit cards.

We Are the 99.9%

Published: November 24, 2011
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paul Krugman

“We are the 99 percent” is a great slogan. It correctly defines the issue as being the middle class versus the elite (as opposed to the middle class versus the poor). And it also gets past the common but wrong establishment notion that rising inequality is mainly about the well educated doing better than the less educated; the big winners in this new Gilded Age have been a handful of very wealthy people, not college graduates in general.

If anything, however, the 99 percent slogan aims too low. A large fraction of the top 1 percent’s gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1 percent — the richest one-thousandth of the population.

And while Democrats, by and large, want that super-elite to make at least some contribution to long-term deficit reduction, Republicans want to cut the super-elite’s taxes even as they slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of fiscal discipline.

Before I get to those policy disputes, here are a few numbers.

The recent Congressional Budget Office report on inequality didn’t look inside the top 1 percent, but an earlier report, which only went up to 2005, did. According to that report, between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent.

For the most part, these huge gains reflected a dramatic rise in the super-elite’s share of pretax income. But there were also large tax cuts favoring the wealthy. In particular, taxes on capital gains are much lower than they were in 1979 — and the richest one-thousandth of Americans account for half of all income from capital gains.

Given this history, why do Republicans advocate further tax cuts for the very rich even as they warn about deficits and demand drastic cuts in social insurance programs?

Well, aside from shouts of “class warfare!” whenever such questions are raised, the usual answer is that the super-elite are “job creators” — that is, that they make a special contribution to the economy. So what you need to know is that this is bad economics. In fact, it would be bad economics even if America had the idealized, perfect market economy of conservative fantasies.

After all, in an idealized market economy each worker would be paid exactly what he or she contributes to the economy by choosing to work, no more and no less. And this would be equally true for workers making $30,000 a year and executives making $30 million a year. There would be no reason to consider the contributions of the $30 million folks as deserving of special treatment.

But, you say, the rich pay taxes! Indeed, they do. And they could — and should, from the point of view of the 99.9 percent — be paying substantially more in taxes, not offered even more tax breaks, despite the alleged budget crisis, because of the wonderful things they supposedly do.

Still, don’t some of the very rich get that way by producing innovations that are worth far more to the world than the income they receive? Sure, but if you look at who really makes up the 0.1 percent, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, by and large, the members of the super-elite are overpaid, not underpaid, for what they do.

For who are the 0.1 percent? Very few of them are Steve Jobs-type innovators; most of them are corporate bigwigs and financial wheeler-dealers. One recent analysis found that 43 percent of the super-elite are executives at nonfinancial companies, 18 percent are in finance and another 12 percent are lawyers or in real estate. And these are not, to put it mildly, professions in which there is a clear relationship between someone’s income and his economic contribution.

Executive pay, which has skyrocketed over the past generation, is famously set by boards of directors appointed by the very people whose pay they determine; poorly performing C.E.O.’s still get lavish paychecks, and even failed and fired executives often receive millions as they go out the door.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis showed that much of the apparent value created by modern finance was a mirage. As the Bank of England’s director for financial stability recently put it, seemingly high returns before the crisis simply reflected increased risk-taking — risk that was mostly borne not by the wheeler-dealers themselves but either by naïve investors or by taxpayers, who ended up holding the bag when it all went wrong. And as he waspishly noted, “If risk-making were a value-adding activity, Russian roulette players would contribute disproportionately to global welfare.”

So should the 99.9 percent hate the 0.1 percent? No, not at all. But they should ignore all the propaganda about “job creators” and demand that the super-elite pay substantially more in taxes.


NOVEMBER 20, 2011

Robin Wells: We Are Greg Mankiw… or Not?

In response to the walkout staged by students in the intro economics class at Harvard, INET launched the syllabus project 30 Ways to Teach Economics. We invited professors and students to send us syllabi, and to share their experience with teaching and learning intro economics. Here are three responses, from Bruce Caldwell, Duncan Foley, and Stephen Ziliak.

Another response comes from Robin Wells. In this essay, she warns teachers of letting the classroom become disconnected from the real world. Amid mass unemployment and economic turmoil, “instructors who lecture on the superiority of free markets without acknowledging the dysfunction in the wider economy are at risk of appearing out of touch and exacerbating antipathy towards economics.”

Wells has taught economics at Princeton University and Stanford Business School. With Paul Krugman she co-authored Economics, published by Worth Publishers and soon forthcoming in the 3rd edition.

We Are Greg Mankiw… or Not?


On Nov. 2nd, a group of students in Harvard University Ec10, the introductory economics class taught by Greg Mankiw, staged a walk-out. In an open letter, the students lambasted Greg’s course and his textbook for “espous[ing] a specific – and limited – view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today…..There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.”

I am sure that many of us who have taught introductory economics or who have written an intro economics textbook (a much smaller subset, and I fall into both) felt a pang of sympathy for Greg when we heard about the walk-out.  If you have ever faced a large lecture hall of restive intro econ students, or coped with a voluble student with an ax to grind, you can feel some solidarity: we are Greg Mankiw too.

But just how far should that sympathy extend?  Is Mankiw simply the target of fuzzy-minded youth who are more intent on making a statement than engaging in reasoned inquiry? Or, is Mankiw – and much of the profession, for that matter – getting a needed reality check about the need to re-orient the way we teach economics?

First, let me say what this essay is not.  It is not an attempt to promote my textbook over Mankiw’s nor an exercise in partisan jousting.  I don’t find a walk-out a useful way to communicate displeasure with an instructor – better to invite him or her to a friendly debate with opposing views. This essay is not a critique of Mankiw’s teaching approach: I was not there to witness it, and every instructor will differ in political preferences and emphasis.  And neither will this essay advocate a root-and-branch re-think of how to teach introductory economics for both pedagogical and practical reasons.  I consider standard microeconomics to be an invaluable introduction to how to reason about the allocation of scarce resources.  Moreover, most intro econ instructors are stretched far too thin to contemplate a wholesale revision of their courses.

But what I will say is this: something is shifting out there, and we ignore it at our peril. It would be very easy to dismiss the student walk-out as an exercise in intellectual laziness and grandstanding.  (After all, as many have pointed out, Keynesian models can’t be taught until second semester of Harvard Ec10.)  But perceptive instructors know that sometimes a stupid question is more than a stupid question.  And a really perceptive instructor will take a seemingly stupid question and turn it into the insightful question that the student should have asked.

Right now the general public views the economics profession with a large measure of distrust and in some cases outright contempt. Students are entering the worst job market in well over a generation, without much prospect of improvement.  Many of them have seen their parents’ lives turned upside down by financial troubles.  They face being members of the first generation in American history with a lower standard of living than their parents.  Income inequality has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age.  There are over 4 million long-term unemployed.

In this environment, instructors who lecture on the superiority of free markets without acknowledging the dysfunction in the wider economy are at risk of appearing out of touch and exacerbating antipathy towards economics.

But how does an instructor do this in an introductory economics?  I think it’s largely a matter of shifting our perspective to let go of the certainties that were part of our economic training and admit to the painful economic uncertainties that many Americans now inhabit.  Here are four ways to help bring that shift to the classroom:

Provide Context.   Compared to past years, instructors need to acknowledge the limits of free markets earlier in their courses. Students should understand the difference between the conceptual importance of free markets and their real world limitations. Explain that much of the current economic distress arises from markets that don’t behave competitively — the labor and financial markets.

Build Trust.  Trust is built when the instructor compensates for the one-sided nature of the relationship by treating students’ viewpoints with respect.  And this is where the art of the perceptive instructor is most likely to be needed.  For example, to the microeconomics student who protests that Keynes and Adam Smith should be given equal time, respond that the issue boils down to why some economists believe that the labor market doesn’t always clear while others believe that its does.  Then take a few minutes to discuss each side of the debate.   Yet, also make clear that valuable class time won’t be wasted on debating viewpoints that are contradicted by the data.

Address Distributional Issues.  The dramatic rise in U.S. income inequality compels us as instructors to address it.  While international trade and educational differences have clearly contributed to some of the rise, it’s clear that they are only partial explanations: they can’t explain the explosion of income gain at the top 1% of the income distribution, and particularly at the top 0.1%.  We shouldn’t extol the benefits of markets while ignoring today’s highly skewed distribution of the benefits.  While there is no single definitive explanation, there are many factors that are feasible topics in class: moral hazard and the setting of CEO compensation, the decline of countervailing forces such as unions and higher marginal tax rates at the top end, deregulation, asset bubbles and the financialization of the U.S. economy.  And then discuss: to what extent is the level of income inequality a legitimate policy target?

Finally, Adopt Some Humility.  It’s true that those of us who weren’t in the business of teaching Gaussian pricing formulas for CDO’s or touting the benefits of homeownership via sub-prime mortgages aren’t directly responsible for the economic mess we’re in.  But in the eyes of many students we are culpable to the extent that we dismiss the need for some re-think of the deference accorded to free markets in how we teach economics as applied to the real world.  Again, I want to emphasize that we make the distinction between communicating the importance of free markets as an intellectual building block and the frequent mis-use of free market concepts when it comes to making real world policy choices.  Lastly, in a world of liquidity-trap macroeconomics, soaring income inequality and an exploding Eurozone, we are going to have to admit that there are areas in which the profession just doesn’t know what the right answer is.

And remember, there is such a thing as a first-mover advantage.  So schedule a teach-in before your classroom is occupied.

Posted by The Institute for… at 6:34 pm



NOVEMBER 18, 2011

Professors share their experience with teaching intro economics

In response to the walkout staged by students in the intro economics class at Harvard, INET launched the syllabus project 30 Ways to Teach Economics. We invited professors and students to send us syllabi, and share their experience with teaching and learning intro economics. Here, you can read about three different courses. Find more syllabi here.

Macroeconomics without the AS-AD model

Duncan Foley, Leo Model Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research, tells us that he stays away from the AS-AD model, which is present in nearly every textbook. He sends us the syllabus to Principles of Macroeconomics and writes:

The syllabus deviates from the standard Introduction to Macroeconomics course primarily in framing the issues in terms of economic history and the history of economic thought, and emphasizing institutions complementary to theories. I personally find the widely-adopted “AD-AS” framework for teaching macroeconomics intellectually fallacious and ideologically loaded, so I try to stay away from it.

Microeconomics with Mankiw’s textbook

Bruce Caldwell, Research Professor of Economics and the Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, uses Greg Mankiw’s textbook for introductory micro. He sends us the syllabus to Principles of Microeconomics and writes:

I used Mankiw for my introductory microeconomics text when I taught large enrollment courses at UNC-Greensboro a few years back. The text develops in a clear manner the basic tools of microeconomics: production possibilities curves, supply and demand curves, the notion of elasticity, the various diagrams associated with market structures.  It is very difficult to get people to read much in large classes, and many UNCG students are first generation college students who in addition to carrying a full load work 25+ hours a week at jobs. But if they did the minimal reading I assigned for class they would have the basics under their belts and would be able to understand my lectures.

For lectures I would go through the basics then illustrate them with case studies or applications. I would pitch the lectures at a higher level. I would also give occasional homeworks, uncollected and ungraded, that I would go over in class. Those who did them typically would do well in class. The others, not so well.

Part of what the class was about was to teach students to take responsibility for their education. On the first day I would go over study tips that, if they followed them, would enable them to succeed. The first was to come to class. Next was to review notes from the past week (I told them to recopy them) each weekend. This helps to cement the concepts in their minds, allows them to see if there are any gaps or areas where they are confused, and if so, to come to see me. Third was to quit their job and sell their car (or if this was not possible, to take fewer classes).  A portion of students would not come to class (I did not take attendance – coming to class was up to them), would not do the reading, would not follow the study tips. They would not do well on the first test: typically about half of the class would get an F or D. When I went over the test I would tell them that if they were unsatisfied with their grades they should either change their behavior (by following the study tips) or drop the class. Note that the test option I provided was to replace the lowest test grade with whatever one gets on the final, so a change in behavior could lead to a much better grade.  Some would change and improve, others would drop the class. Sadly, a certain portion would not change their behavior or drop the class. Hope springs eternal, I suppose.

Microeconomics using “The Grapes of Wrath”

Stephen Ziliak, Trustee and Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University-Chicago and a member of the INET Curriculum Committee Task Force, teaches introductory microeconomics using The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Here is the syllabus.

The Grapes of Wrath was published by its author, John Steinbeck, in 1939, during the worst economic crisis in American and world history. Set in and written during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is a bluesy road-novel with a lot of social and economic theory and analysis. It follows a family of homeless and landless tenant farmers from Oklahoma—the Joads—who’ve been forced on account of foreclosure to leave the farm and land which they labored and lived on for several generations.

Forced by a large bank and absentee owners to leave their home, the Midwestern farmers with little education and no income join other displaced workers on the road to California, in search of jobs, food, and housing—a piece of the American Dream.

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was for many years censored and banned by governments and school boards made uncomfortable by the novel’s detailed portrayal of economic inequality, hardship, and oppression.

We asked Stephen Ziliak to share his experience teaching The Grapes of Wrath, which he has used since 1996 to form the basis of his intro economics course.

Q: Why, Professor Ziliak, way back in 1996, did you begin to teach to introductory economics students The Grapes of Wrath?

A: I guess my first response is that I eschewed in my own research the one-voiced, monological approach of conventional neoclassical economics. Trained as an economic historian, I’m an amateur poet who had also worked as a welfare and food stamp caseworker in the county welfare department, going door-to-door in the poorest neighborhoods of Indianapolis. When I became an Assistant Professor of Economics, in 1996, I was searching for a teaching method that would open up the conversation to a wider, more realistic set of issues. It only seemed fair to me: given that I myself had philosophical objections to the conventional approach to teaching utilitarian economics, it hardly seemed right to force-feed my students. Plus, many of my students came from working class families but they’d never experienced a recession. I wanted them to know that growth and bubbles do not last forever.

Q: Why teach The Grapes of Wrath and not some other novel?

A: Good question. First and foremost, it’s an incredibly moving novel that—I openly admit—continues to make me laugh and cry. Now laughing and crying are not necessary for good pedagogy. But it seems to me that if a fact-based story about economic history can make a grown man and professor of economics cry, it must have something important to say. The visible hand of class conflict needs to be aired and this novel does it.

Q: You said fact-based. What do you mean—it’s a novel, it’s fiction, yes?

A: Yes, but it’s historical fiction—meaning that Steinbeck, like Hugo, Zola, and others before him, was deliberately depicting real and felt experiences. There are exaggerations and omissions of fact, true—as economic historians and English professors know full well. But in fact, Steinbeck himself spent a year or more working and studying inside of the same temporary labor camps that the fictional Joad family experienced in California.

Q: How do students react? Can you share some insights from the teacher perspective?

A: Really well, eventually. Some are defensive at first, being trained to believe that stories are for novelists and theory for scientists. Still others have been so deeply entrenched with what I call the banking approach to learning—regurgitating facts and equations—they’re afraid of dialogue and a plurality of voices and interpretation. But students tell me it’s one of those life-changing courses.

Q: What about the “quants”? Do quants survive the course?

A: Again, it’s not for everyone. But yes, absolutely. An example is a student who studied with me at Roosevelt University. He came to Roosevelt as a freshman from Puerto Rico on a violin scholarship. He was preparing for a career in violin at our conservatory and, at the same time, he had a passion for advanced mathematics. On a lark he enrolled in my Grapes of Wrath course. Half-way through the term he told me that something was happening to him. The evolution of the protagonist, Tom Joad, from self-interested ex-con to benevolent labor leader, he found fascinating. He thought that he might have to switch from violin and math to economics. I told him no, if he really wanted to switch he could study math and economics—he wouldn’t have to give up the math. By the time he was a junior (a third year student) he landed a job with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. At graduation he was promoted to Associate Research Economist. Now he’s a master’s student in economics and statistics at Duke University but he is not at all bamboozled by the utility maximization-only school.

Q: Do you supplement the novel with other literature or media?

A: Yeah. For example, a particularly fun day of class is when we play music by Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Rage Against the Machine—who’ve recorded songs about Tom Joad. Springsteen himself recorded an entire CD on the central themes.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.