In the past week alone, several friends have approached me to share that they plan on taking “An Introduction to Economics” sometime in the future. “I feel like it’s a class that I should take,” my friends would explain, before asking me if it’s a class that I would recommend. At this point in the conversation, I always hesitate. Not because I didn’t like my Introduction to Economics class or because I don’t think that economics is a worthwhile subject. But for students who are not interested in majoring in economics, I can’t help but imagine that they would find Introduction to Economics to be a suboptimal use of their time.
To graduate as an economics major, you must take three “core” classes: “Microeconomics,” “Macroeconomics,” and “Econometrics.” Introduction to Economics, therefore, is structured around preparing students to take these courses. As a result, there is a significant amount of material that professors have to cover in Introduction to Economics, some of it more relevant and some of it less relevant to the interests of non-majors. With the extensive amount of time spent working with economic models in the current introductory course, there is less time to study the economic applications that appeal to the student body at large — topics like inflation, unemployment, race, and the environment.
An introductory class for non-majors wouldn’t have to start from scratch. Rather, models in Introduction to Economics are taught at a level of specificity and detail that is not required for non-majors. Teaching the basic concepts on a conceptual level while simultaneously reducing the amount of quantitative analysis in the course would allow professors to both teach the fundamental principles of economics and create more space for discussing relevant (and more interesting) applications of economic theory.
In a time when inflation is rising at its highest rate in decades, for example, it would be beneficial to understand how the Federal Reserve manipulates the money supply in order to change interest rates and control inflation. At a time of environmental crisis, it would be beneficial to understand negative externalities (aka pollution) and the effects of using taxes and subsidies to mitigate these externalities. Not only will economics equip you with the language to understand the political discourse and jargon that defines public policy, but it will also provide you with an understanding of the fundamental mechanisms at play in issues like inflation and pollution. It’s problematic, therefore, that the only introductory economics courses are targeted at economics majors.
An emphasis on policy applications — and a shift away from detailed analyses of models — will make economics more accessible to students who might be classics or physics majors. A purely content-based change, however, would not by itself fix the shortcomings of the course for non-majors. An Introduction to Economics course for non-majors would also benefit greatly from a thematic restructuring. Economics is inseparable from issues of race, inequality, and the environment, and this connection must be drawn explicitly. As opposed to studying these issues tangentially — in isolated class discussions, for example — race and the environment could be made the overarching thematic backdrop of the course.
I have to give a lot of credit to “An Introduction to Economics with Environmental Applications,” taught by Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Katharine Sims. In this class, we read articles like “Racism and the Economy,” which details wage and employment disparities between Black and white individuals. We read an article about natural capital, which involves valuing the environment in monetary terms such that “nature is a financial asset, and damage to it becomes a liability.” We read about a proposal for a global carbon incentive that would require countries to pay into a global fund if they emitted more than the global average of carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
While race and the environment are touched on in current Introduction to Economics courses, discussion of them is limited due to the standard economics curriculum that professors have to cover. An introductory course for non-majors would have more flexibility in its syllabus, which in turn would increase the opportunity for analysis of economic policy as it relates to the environment and race.
Even with a greater focus on policy, economics as a discipline can feel as if it exists within a bubble. All models in Introduction to Economics are inherently simplified versions of what’s happening in the world. To be truly worthwhile, an introductory course for non-majors should challenge the fundamental tenets of neoclassical economics that underlie the models presented in Introduction to Economics: (1) humans behave rationally, and (2) humans act in their own self-interest. The field of behavioral economics problematizes these assumptions in order to create more accurate predictions of real-world behavior. Presenting students with a version of economics that takes into account empirical evidence on human decision-making would help overcome the conception that economics is a meaningless abstraction. Therefore, just as Introduction to Economics includes a microeconomics section and a macroeconomics section, an introductory course for non-majors could teach a neoclassical economics section and behavioral economics section.
To return to my friends’ question — “Should I take Introduction to Economics?” — I would like to answer “yes.” But I would first ask the economics department to create an intro course for non-majors. There are critical applications of economics, from our daily lives to global politics, that would make students more informed and conscious members of society. But there are also technical and confusing elements of Introduction to Economics that non-majors could do without. Shift the emphasis of the course to policy and social issues. Professors could even adjust the curriculum on a year-to-year basis based on topical political, environmental, and racial issues. There’s a demand for an economics class for non-majors, but where’s the supply?