Choosing a textbook for Economics 100 is like choosing toothpaste. There are as many textbooks to choose from in the bookstore as there are brands of toothpaste in the supermarket. Furthermore, just as the "new, new" toothpastes do not differ very much from what they replace, neither do the new editions of textbooks released every three years or so there is just enough changed to destroy the used-book market for the previous editions. Finally, there is not much more substantive difference in the structure and content of introductory economics texts than there is among different brands of toothpaste.
To be sure, most texts now come with a variety of useful high-tech supplements and links to interesting websites. Furthermore, the printing of the texts is of uniformly high quality. Two decades ago, more than two colors in textbooks were rare, because each color added significantly to the cost of printing. Apparently there has been much progress in color printing, for the books now come in dazzling displays of multiple colors which, alas, are decidedly mixed blessings.
On the one hand, multi-color printing permits authors to present beautifully crafted graphical or tabular displays that enhance the pedagogic value of the books. On the other hand, however, many of the books now weave the main text through a dizzying melange of cartoons, barely relevant colored pictures, multi-color insets and multi-color sidebars that tell interesting stories or distill the most important points in the adjacent paragraph. The idea seems to be that youngsters who grew up on ESPN and video games would be alienated by clean, serious and well organized textbook pages. Next, no doubt, will come vanilla flavored paper — perhaps even pizza-flavored, with simulated beer stains — and crossword puzzles for added diversion.
And what can explain the extraordinary homogeneity among toothpastes — er, I mean economics textbooks? I discovered it years ago, when my late colleague William Branson and I had planned to write a textbook that would differ from the standard issue in two respects. We planned to emphasize than do most texts the role that finance plays in the economy and the ethical precepts embedded in prescriptive economic analysis more than existing texts.
When I teach ECO 100, I routinely complement the uniformly stale presentations of the business firm now found in virtually all texts — rendered as it is in language and concepts business people never use — with thorough lectures on real-world corporate finance and even a lecture on how to found a real business firm. Furthermore, I challenge students much more than most texts do to question the dubious ethical premise that, if a public policy yields Donald a gain of $1,000 (measured by the maximum bribe he would pay to see the policy implemented) and imposes on Mary a loss of $500 (measured the maximum bribe she would pay to prevent the policy from being implemented), then that policy is "efficient" and enhances "social welfare," even if Donald were a billionaire and Mary a waitress. We put this central premise of what economists felicitously call "welfare economics" to the test in the context of health care and the volunteer army.
As colleague Branson and I presented our ideas to sundry publishers, we quickly discovered that it probably would be too advanced and too revolutionary. It appears that to be publishable, an introductory textbook in economics now must fit snugly into a cookie-cutter mold that appeals to the mass market for textbooks, which now includes high schools. This requirement dictates the remarkable homogeneity among introductory economics texts and also explains why many of them do not engage Ivy League students. In their quest to tailor their textbooks to the mass market, some publishers even highlight with yellow markers passages in the text they deem important. The thought appears to be that students either are preoccupied listening to their iPods while reading the text or are just plain too dumb to highlight important passages on their own.
Truly wondrous are some of the Instructor's Manuals that accompany these textbooks. They seem to assume that professors working in the mass market need even the most basic instruction on how to teach economics. Past manuals for the text penned by Princeton alumnus and now Harvard Professor N. Gregory Mankiw '80, for example, recommended that professors issue rubber bands to students to give them a feel for the concept of "price-elasticity of demand." This year's new, new edition suggests more advanced techniques: Bouncing rubber balls in front of students.
So, naturally, I have ordered Mankiw's text for the spring term of ECO 100. Although it, too, shoots far below a Princeton student's competence, at least its pages are not too busy. But the true reason for my choice is that I simply could not resist my distinguished Harvard colleague's authorization — nay, instruction! — to play in class with rubber bands and bouncing balls. What fun! Uwe E. Reinhardt is the James Madison Professor of Political Economy and a professor in the Wilson School. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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