Robert Frank’s teaching philosophy

What we decided was that if you could commit yourself to the five or
six key ideas, the ones that do most of the heavy lifting in economics,
students really could master those after a semester, and the key device
that we’ve stumbled onto for doing that is a writing assignment.

Here is the full interview with Frank, mostly on his teaching philosophy and his excellent new book, The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas.  My blurb for the book was:

"Smart, snappy and delightful.  Bob Frank is one of America’s best writers on economics."


This Robert Frank can only be an imposter since there is, actually, only one real Robert Frank: the Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker, author of the best photographic book ever published, The Americans, and director of the legendary, unreleased film about the Rolling Stones, Cocksucker Blues.

"For example, we can (and do) show essentially every college freshman -- even most high school students probably -- just why the minimum wage is counterproductive."

Card was apparently correct to drop his minimum wage work.

Anderson, a friend of mine recently told me the maxim "You don't really know something unless you can explain it to an 8 year old." This sounds odd but it is probably correct.

I'm not sure I like the idea of reducing to just key concepts. The simplifications necessary to teach economics are exactly what bugged me about the way it was taught, at least in the Econ 101 class I took. It's sort of like an introductory physics, where all surfaces are frictionless, all gases and springs are "ideal", and there is no such thing as drag. Gravity causes everything to accelerate at the same rate. Except in physics you are much more likely to be aware of all of the simplifying assumptions you are making. And in physics everything was empirically grounded. So much of what you learn in econ is like Aristotle's sort of "physics", where all you need is logic, and if you think really hard about it and come up with a logically consistent way of explaining the world that makes sense, then you have found the truth, no need for tests. (For example, Aristotle reasoned that objects fall at a rate that is proportional to their mass. He never attempted to quantify this, and this made enough sense that it went unchallenged for millenia even though it is perfectly testable and wrong.)

My Econ 101 teacher taught me why the minimum wage is a bad idea. It's simple supply and demand, really, and he drew on the chalkboard the typical graph with the supply curve and demand curve for the labor market and showed how price fixing above the equilibrium point would lead to a certain shortage in the form of unemployment. Simple, obvious, clearly follows from the basic fundamental principles of economics, right? Of course, the explanation was naive in a number of ways he didn't bother to explain, like treating labor as a homogenous good, and treating the demand curve as fixed when in fact a policy change like minimum wage would lead to more money in many peoples hands which would certainly have some sort of an effect on the demand curve. And then there are all the assumptions behind supply, demand, perfectly competetive markets and all that I would learn later in a more advanced econ class. But the real problem with the explanation is that it pretended to be a quantitative explanation, but was not based on any real world data. It was some arbitrarily drawn lines on a chalkboard. Would raising the minimum wage $5 cause 2 people to lose their jobs? Would raising the minimum wage a penny cause unemployment to double? My college professor's explanation of why the minimum wage was counterproductive shed no light on this question. And I have seen no empirical studies that have shown the minimum wage, at least at the level it is in this country, to worsen unemployment, and a few like Card's study seem to indicate otherwise. But the real world data on a question like this is entirely beside the point, see they have a reasonable set of assumptions and a logically consistent argument that raising the minimum wage should cause (insert unspecified and undeterminable quantity) people to lose their jobs (ignoring any other factors, like increased demand for goods and services by those earning minimum wage).

Anyway, that's my rant. I always found econ interesting, but I really feel that anybody who takes any econ at all should be required to at least take it through a sophomore level, because otherwise plenty of econ concepts that people intuitively understand are unlearned as they are replaced with oversimplified, invisible hand will take care of everything and your job is to get out of its way dogma. And the one thing I would change about the way it is taught is more empiricism, more real world data, less "proof" by logic, because it is a fuzzy field with lots of unspoken assumptions, so if real world data doesn't prove it it's not proven.

People who think that idealized economic theories aren't every bit as potent as idealized physics theories probably would have had a problem with Newtonian or Einsteinian mechanics, neither of which had experimental verification for decades after their formulation. The point of good theory is to provide valuable avenues of experimental research. Anyone who wishes to prove that raising the minimum wage increases social welfare is free to try, but don't come to me for funding (it's easy enough to ask a union group, but they may not like youe answer).

Economic theories about difficult to observe phenomena are among the most valuable. Without it, where would support for free trade be? Or how can we recognize that water isn't really free (TANSTAAFL)?

Of course, before they teach the results of social science experiments, they should probably teach a theory of experimentation and statistics, such as how one-in-twenty statistically significant experiments are likely to yield false positives. That way, when one Card study comes along out of dozens of well-constructed studies on minimum wage, we won't have to hear about the exception disproving the rule in blog forums til the end of time.

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