Monday, July 10, 2006

Teaching how Lady Madonna manages to make ends meet 

This first introduction is from Joshua Walton, who is being mentored by the same great man who mentored me 25 years ago, and still does today. Without further adieu,

Hi everyone, and thanks very much Prof. Banaian, for the opportunity to contribute to SCSU Scholars. A little bit about myself, by way of introduction: I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, the co-eldest of five kids, all of us homeschooled through high school. I got my BA at a small liberal arts college in southern Michigan, and am now working on my PhD in politics and Economics in southern California.

I was surfing around a couple of days ago, and noticed a recent post at Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen which struck my interest. It was this one in which he mentions learning economics through song lyrics. The paper TC mentions is pretty good, but it loses a few points in my book by mentioning ABBA and Led Zeppelin in the title and no where else in the paper. Talk about false advertising...

While it gave pretty good (non-ABBA or Zeppelin!) examples, the paper's central premise--that one can use music to teach economics--struck me as being old news. When I was a fresh undergrad, I had a poli econ professor who would tell the story of when he had judged a grade-school speech competition, and a young student had, in her speech, quoted theese lins from John Lennon's "Imagine:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can

His response (to us, not to the girl -- hopefully) was along the lines of "It's actually not hard to imagine no possessions; in fact, we don't need to, I have a picture of it right here," and then he'd whip out a National Geographic-style photo of a man in tattered clothes sitting on a folding chair in an otherwise completely empty mud hut somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. "Here's another," and this time it's a photo of a long line of destitute refugees carrying very little, heading ... somewhere. "I guess it's not no possessions technically--that guy there has a bicycle, and she's carrying a bag of something--but, you know, it's close. That's right about what no possessions looks like."

Then he would throw out a few lines from "Refugee" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to make a follow-on point about markets and gains from trade. The lines were from the chorus:

You see you don't have to live like a refugee
I said you don't have to live like a refugee

His point was that trade is not zero-sum, and that if you let people freely trade in the market, people can use the market to improve their lives, and thus no one has to live like a refugee. I think that was his point, anyway; it was a morning class. But that could have been his point, unless his point was just to take an opportunity to rip on John Lennon, either one works. But I have to say, it stuck with me, and "Refugee" is still one of my favorite songs.

The problem with getting one's economics from song lyrics is that once you start, you can't stop. Just this morning I heard a song at the supermarket which mentioned "sufferring for your sanity", and I thought "Aha! Sounds like Bryan Caplan's rational irrationality!" The feeling of despair you get after thinking such things is not to be wished on anyone....