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January 2018 posts

Should the High School Economics Course Include Ethics?

By John Morton Mort morton2

Over one million high school students enroll in an economics course each year, usually in their senior year.  That’s an impressive number.  While these courses vary greatly, three formats dominate.

About 150,000 students take Advanced Placement Economics.  This program consists of a one-semester microeconomics course and a one-semester macroeconomics course.  Because students can earn college credit if they pass a standardized test at a certain level, AP Economics is similar to the college introductory economics course.

Most students take a one-semester course, which is a watered-down college introductory course with personal finance added on. 

The third type of course is a one-semester course focused on personal finance with some economics thrown in.

Despite their differences, these courses all share one feature--they do not teach economics within an ethical context.  This puzzles me.  Adam Smith is considered the “father of economics,” but when he lived, he was considered a professor of moral philosophy.  In the years right after the Enron scandal, there was an interest of economics teachers in teaching ethics, but the interest was short-lived.

What is the study of ethics?  In short, it is the consideration of what is right or wrong.  Ethics is about defining and living a good life.  It’s about making life better for others.  It’s about integrity.  An ethical person wants to make the world a better place.

A study of ethics would seem to be a natural fit in an economics class.  For example, one of the first lessons of economics is that both parties gain when they trade.  The emphasis is on improving our material standard of living.  It seems to me that students should also discuss the effects of trade on peace, virtue, trustworthiness, and discipline.  From another point of view, how important are integrity and responsibility to successful trade?

From my own teaching experience, I know that students respond well to these ideas because most of them hope the world will be a better place with them than without them.


Morality on the Road

By Jonathan B. Wight

“Driving means making a thousand small Road ragemoral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity.”

“Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are we in a place where there is a system of self-restraint, or are we in a place where it’s dog eat dog?”

-- David Brooks

To read the whole thing, go here

[Image: Piero Sierra, https://www.flickr.com/photos/piero/103691782]


Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions

By Jonathan B. Wight

Economists tend to think that people are rational, and that after voluntarily choosing a goal people are therefore capable of exerting the will-power necessary to achieve that goal. 

We all know this often isn’t so, and behavioral economics has come up with some useful heuristics to improve outcomes and to improve self-control. 

But economists still tend to be wedded to the idea of developing self-control using rational arguments and incentives: tell subjects that if they are willing to wait 15 minutes they can get two candies rather than one immediately.  In theory, incentives lead people to develop will power. 

But there’s may be a more effective way, that relates to Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments. It has to do with using your sentiments of gratitude and compassion to boost self-control.  Read about it here

Happy New Year!


Auld Lang Syne

By John Morton

It’s New Year’s Day 2018, and I bet a lot of people are concerned about the new year and the future beyond 2018.  President Trump keeps Tweeting.  Nancy Pelosi says this recent tax cut is “a Frankenstein monster” and compared it to “Armageddon.”  In the United States, life expectancy has gone down two years in a row because of opioid addiction.  I have the worst cold in my rather long life.  Is the world going to hell in a hand basket?

Cheer up and browse the late Hans Rosling’s gapminder.org website.  One of the great unwritten stories is by how much the world is getting better:

  • The world is getting richer.
  • World poverty is at an all-time low Poverty
  • World life expectancy is at an all-time high.
  • Child mortality is falling and is at an all-time low.

For fun, show your students the bubble chart that shows changes in income and life expectancy over the last 2000 years.  Or have your students take the Gapminder Quiz.  The answers will surprise them.

Whatever you do, don’t send your students out into the world with a pessimistic mind-set.  Instead, give them the skills and confidence to make this world a better place.

Happy New Year!

[Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_World_as_100_People.png]