Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The elasticity of economics instructors or, there's no such thing as free economic instruction 

Everyone seems to be in favor of having more people learn economics. Greg Mankiw notes approvingly the suggestion from Nicholas Kristof. John Stossel, who of course has done a great deal to decrease the marginal cost of delivering that education, says it would help create better voters, which leads Bryan Caplan to suggest cloning Stossel.

But note that Caplan says "Everyone who knows some economics" should get out to teach it. That's a resource question. How many people "know some economics" and how many of those people can teach it? Just because we pass a law saying "everyone must learn some economics" in high school doesn't assure that what they learn is actually any damned good. Then there is the set of people who teach in high school. We're looking for the intersection of "people who can teach" and "people who know some economics". (Arnold Kling might have some suggestions on how to tell the difference.)

Suppose the intersection is sparse. We then need to do two things -- we can either pay them enormous salaries to get people who know economics to invest in learning how to teach, or we can develop ways to make each person in the sparse set more productivity. Stossel is productive via the lens and a broadcast network. Caplan, Mankiw and (to a much lesser extent) myself write blogs. William Allen and I can do radio; Russ Roberts can podcast.

Assuming that everyone has found the best means to deliver economic instruction, all this increase in demand should cause the wage I receive to rise. (Yes, presumptuous me, I think I count as one of those guys who both knows some economics and can teach. Your tetchy remarks in comments will be duly ignored.)

Yes, more economic instruction would be good, but TANSTAAFL. What would be the cost of that instruction, compared to what outcome if we don't provide it, who's buying and how will we know we got our money's worth? Consider me skeptical until these questions are answered.

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