How to study economics in your spare time

Our apologies a Typepad error has swallowed this post; might any of you have a copy of it to send me and/or put in the comments?  In any case the comments are excellent…in the post I recommended Mankiw’s text, the reading list on his blog, Freakonomics, Tim Harford, my own In Praise of Commercial Culture, and texts by Hal Varian and Eric Rasmusen, among other sources.  Most of all just let loose and break from your reading program to follow your inclinations and passions…

Addendum: Simon Taylor comes to the rescue, here was the original post:

I am a chemistry major interested in learning economics in my spare time.  With summer fast approaching, I’ll have more spare time to pursue the subject than I currently do.  I would like to start with the basics and pursue micro and macro up to an advanced level.  (I realize, of course, this cannot be done over the summer alone.)  I’ve never taken an economics course before, but being a science student, I can handle a mathematically intensive approach.

I am wondering if you could recommend some textbooks, journal articles, and any influential books by economists that you would encourage others to read, as well as provide some recommendations as to the order in which these things should be studied.

The best start is our blogroll and then try Mankiw’s Principles book if you need the background and don’t mind the length.  More generally, here is Greg’s recommended reading list, though I don’t like Heilbroner’s book.  I also recommend Arnold Kling’s on-line text, my own In Praise of Commercial Culture, but best of all is having an office next door to Alex, Bryan, and Robin.  For mathematical approaches, see the Ph.d. textbook by Hal Varian, Eric Rasmusen’s Games and Signalling, Milton Friedman’s old Price Theory book, and quiz yourself with micro puzzles until you drop dead.

Most of all, I don’t think people much stick to reading programmes, nor should they.  It is best is to jump off track and pursue the diversions which fascinate you.

Readers, what else do you recommend?

Comments

Problem sets. Most of what I learned that really sank in involved working backwards and forwards through problems, and then working on more problems. If you can stand it, and have the discipline, that's a source of knowledge. The subtlety in economics makes learning it without working problems hard and rare. Most students (though not all probably) have to have the material crammed in, and that only comes from sweating over problems.

Papers. I'd recommend reading papers over books, personally. Find a topic that you really like a lot, and then just read everything you can on it. I became interested in law and economics by accident, and spent a full year of reading applied law and economics papers before starting graduate school, and that helped.

People. Find people to talk to about what you're reading and learning. Blogs can even function like that. I hear GMU has a culture of small groups where students read extracurricular works together regularly and discuss them. I've always thought that that would help me learn more economics. There's almost no discussion that goes on about the material in graduate classes, which is a shame, as iron sharpens iron. If you can find people who are motivated, then try to coordinate a club of sorts to read papers, books and simply talk about economics together.

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Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

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Cultivate an economics professor drinking buddy!

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If you're really starting at the beginning, I'd recommend some non-mathematical works in the micro world to get your feet wet. Things like "Human Action" by Mises (are my GMU roots showing too much?) would be a fantastic start to understanding the basis and limitations of the models that you use later on in the more math oriented approaches. There are a variety of great resources available over at econlib.org, you could do far worse than starting at http://www.econlib.org/library/forum.html. Lots of great economists there. They also have lots of articles by the likes of Bastiat and Hayek, so do some digging and find gold!

Isaac

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Thanks, Tyler. Thanks to everyone else for any advice you can give. I've already asked a few other people with differing perspectives on economics (ranging from liberals to libertarians) and I'm open to anything.

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I second the idea of first deciding which topics you're most fascinated by, and then finding (1) research papers and perhaps (2) lecture notes in that area. For example, I am starting to get into environmental econ, and I happened across a website for an Environmental Econ seminar at Harvard. That's what got me started, and now I am (gradually) reading through all sorts of fascinating areas, just sating my curiosity.

For course lecture notes, I would suggest MIT OpenCourseWare. If nothing else, skim the topics, dig deeper into a few powerpoint presentations. This will at least give you the lingo you need to know. Use wikipedia for specific terms. It's almost always instructive.

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If you want to learn economics I would avoid Mankiw, and almost all intermediate Micro/Macro books. Textbooks often present information and theories that fit well into a textbook and can easily be played with and quizzed on but are very outdated in the profession. IS-LM, AS-AD, cost/production functions are useful to know what others are learning, but are painfully lacking in economic truth, and in fact can be dangerous by iplanting incorrect ideas into your thought.

The Economic Way of Thinking is an excellent intro for micro.

Avoid the pop econ books for now, they are fun reads but reveal little economic truth.

If you want to dabble in math, pick up an econometrics textbook.

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I think that this book would be quite interesting for a beginner:

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7610.html

This is Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution by Samuel Bowles (2004, Princeton University Press). There is an emphasis on social processes and institutions.

I also recommend the following two books:

Real World Macro ( http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore/infomacro.html )

Real World Micro ( http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore/infomicro.html )

These last two books are more on the "left" of the political spectrum (I could imagine activists in the social democratic parties of France/Scandinavia/Netherlands/etc. giving these a "thumbs up"), but they are well-reasoned and well-written

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I second Tyler's recommendation of his own book!

Also, I did a posting long ago offering some guidance for those who are interested in cracking econ but who are also completely averse to charts (blech) and math (patooie): here it is. Simple, straightforward, and even vivid English works for me.

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Like Johan, I found Romer's book much more understandable than all the other macro books I read, because I could always check the math when I got confused. But Romer really reads better if you are competent with micro already, because you need ideas like NPV and so on to follow the exposition. For this purpose, I recommend Preston McAfee's free book Introduction to Economic Analysis, which doesn't hesitate to use mathematics to keep things clear.

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Tyler,
This is the second time you said you didn't like Heilbroners book. Why not?

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Although 'real' economist seem to disdain books aimed at the public at large, I've always quite enjoyed them, mainly because Im no economist.

'Free Lunch' by David Smith and 'The truth about markets' by John Kay are great books INHO. They begin each from a different perspective and connect theory with practice to produce a complete picture.

There is no greater killer of curiosity then formal text books.

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I'd steer clear of anything that's firmly rooted in the Pure Commodities, Perfect Competition paradigm that has corseted Micro for the last 50-60 years. If you're interested in where economics is going rather than the rut the mainstream's been stuck in, read Eric Beinhocker's The Origin of Weath, then follow that up with Samuel Bowles' Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution.

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I'm a libertarian challenging my beliefs in a mainstream econ PhD program. I'd add 2 books that are a bit math heavier in addition to the Austrian or armchair approach.

Alpha Chiang's Fundamentals of Mathematical Economics (will help you bridge the gap between econ and math)

William Greene's Econometric Analysis (if metrics is a direction you'd like to go or useful for reading and picking apart mainstream econ papers even if you don't practice it)

That being said: I second Human Action by Mises and would add that you should read the whole of the socialist calculation debate! You will see how fast the math becomes useless when presented with market derived prices and the information they contain!!!!!!

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Read both of the great Sowell economics texts and The Hazlitt book ASAP! ;-)

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David Friedman's Law's Order, which is webbed here. As a bonus, it's also about law, but contains the best treatment of the Coase Theorem I have encountered (which isn't saying much, but still ...).

Bastiat's That Which is Seen and That Which is not Seen is not bad. Marshall's Principles is a much better starting point than all those stuffy old tomes.

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Study Von Mises. The rest is crap. It would be nice if the economists studied real life instead of trying to distort and squeeze human behavior into their ridiculous, non-predictive psuedo-"science". If they all know so much about money and where the economy is going, how come they have work a salaried job for a living?

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I want to offer another recommendation of the introductory economics lectures available from The Teaching Company. They're great if you have a long commute.

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Chicago Studies in Political Economy
Stigler

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I would recommend AGAINST classics like WoN, Ricardo, Mill, GT etc. as well as Mises and most of Hayek. This is assuming your purpose is to be able to follow contemporary discourse on economic issue rather than pursue an examination in history of economic thought."

The original asker of the question needs to decide if he wants to learn about economics (and the economic way of thinking) or what people are doing with economics today. If he wants to learn the economic way of thinking, the "classics" are really the best place to get that. Of the contemporary authors, I think that Landsburg does a decent job of getting the basics across, but few have matched Mises or Hayek. I will say that Landsburg's books are more readable and his textbooks obviously offer exercises to hone your skills, if you're interested in *doing* economics, those may prove to be useful...

Isaac

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While I can appreciate that as a chemistry student you are able to delve deeply into an intensive math regime, I personally choose to avoid math intensive lesson plans, especially at first. In my opinion they tend to lose the core of economics which is, once again in my opinion, not particularly rooted in mathematics. Economics is actually more about qualitative description in which the quantitative data is merely used later to piece information together. As one of my econ professors put it, "Economics is really a story, if you have to use math to explain something, you've screwed up". I personally recommend "The Worldly Philosophers" by Robert L. Heilbroner. After that any basic micro or macro book by Pindyck and Rubenfield should be a good choice for a more mathematical approach.

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While there are many many great suggestions here, one of the best books for the raw beginner is Eat The Rich, by P. J. O'Rourke. It's funny, making the material accessible. After reading this, Thomas Sowell is a good choice.

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Romer really reads better if you are competent with micro already, because you need ideas like NPV and so on to follow the exposition.

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