“It’s easier to pull a piece of string than push it…”

By Wednesday, September 3, 2014 No tags 0

The quote used in the heading is one of many pithy comments felled by my father – and one of the few one can put in print. As I recall, he used it in conjunction with a rant he was having about basic management skills, or, rather what he saw as the lack thereof in the organisation he was working for at the time.

 

My old man’s point was basically that the most efficient method of getting people to act towards a certain goal is to somehow make them want to attain the goal. As usual he was right. It has taken me a lot of time and effort to arrive at the conclusion that he was basically always right. It is doubtful that any of my students will say that some day…

In any case, my point here is that we in the ‘dismal science’ needn’t be all that dismal – or dull, for that matter. We are dealing with subject matter that casts a very wide net over societal issues; how hard can it be to find tangents to subjects that our students take to heart easily?! Allow me to use my new IB1 class as a didactic ‘diving board’ out into examples of how I attempt to grab the neophyte economist by the intellectual lapels. Here is my basic introductory method and three recent issues I have used to start off the year with my new, rather remarkable, IB1’s.

I put inordinate effort into getting my new students to understand from the very outset that economics is both an intellectual exercise and an applied science. We need the rigour of clear-cut operational parameters (e.g. assumptions and limitations in our theory) together with empirical accounts of good/bad/ugly outcomes of various economic decisions and policies. Now, your average 16 year old is not going to be too up on the latest budget debate or unemployment figures, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous economic issues pertaining to these young budding economists. The task becomes to find out just a bit about the students one has and bring up issues that will strike a note with them.

I always take pain to spend the first hour with new students doing nothing but talking about who they are and, indeed, who their teacher is. We’re humans. We want to know who the other is. So, though I never ask personal questions, I do want to know their background (country of origin…place of birth…nationalities…) and, on a clearly voluntary basis, what the parents do for a living. By the time 18 young people have introduced themselves, I have an ample supply of subjects to get them hooked!

  • One of the students had Ukrainian background. During the introduction of the basic economic problem of scarcity/wants and thus choice, we had a classic ‘guns or butter’ dilemma. During the discussion, several gifted historians opined that war helped bring the US out of recession…and then the debate raged on whether Ukraine was going to better off due to the conflict…and I asked them to look up Fredric Bastiat.
  • I asked if the students had seen some strange things in Shanghai and since many of them have been here for years I received lots of suggestions. All of them had seen the glossy new malls full of…nothing. Empty shops and empty restaurants. This was a great take-off for supply and demand analysis of expectations-based demand, speculative bubbles and introduction to macro. I showed them a rather famous 60 Minutes report (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxjwhk1ktNw) on the thousands of empty apartment buildings, ghost towns and enormous malls that have no customers. Look up ‘housing bubble 2008’.
  • The concept of substitutes was easily exemplified by my Korean students – many of whom live in Shanghai on their own, seeing the parents once a month or so. It turns out that many of these students are doing the IB abroad to avoid the horrifying level of competition in Korea for university seats. There is a quota for Korean students that have studied abroad and it is easier to get into Korean university with a foreign high school diploma. Thus, the more competition domestically between Korean high school students, the more demand we saw in Shanghai from Korean students.

I suppose what I am trying to do is get these young people to bring up economics issues at the dinner table with their parents. In fact, one of the hooks I use is that my aim is for them to be able to beat their parents in an argument before end of term.

It would seem that this is quite a learning incentive!

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