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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Economics for Poets

I've made no secret of my, um, less-than-stellar academic career.  Anyone who knows me (or who has done even a little reading here) knows that even colorful pictures and sock-puppets wouldn't be enough to get most math/science-related concepts to take root in the infertile soil between my ears.

However, occasionally my inability to process complex topics could be circumvented by hiding the more elusive subject in the guise a mundane topic that I found engaging (sort of like hiding a your dog's heartworm pill in a big hunk of meat).

A good example of this would be Geology.

All by itself, geology didn't stand a chance of making any sort of lasting impression on my limited store of retained information.  But because the first person to teach me about geology (a Paleontologist who was a colleague and close friend of my father at SUNY New Paltz) wisely combined that topic with my innate love of anything related to dinosaurs and fossils, I inadvertently became quite well versed in the broader discipline.  In short, my extensive knowledge of the various families of rocks can be entirely attributed to the fact that I wanted to know which kind of rocks contained fossils, and why.

I mention this small personal triumph because I get an e-mail from an old college friend last night containing a link to a fascinating story.  I'll get to the nature of the story in a second, but first it is important that you understand that I am a complete and total ignoramus regarding anything to do with another complex subject; Economics.

I took both micro and macro economics a combined total of 5 times during my University career (I'm fairly sure that is a school record that still stands).  I only needed a passing grade in one of them for my degree requirement, and in the end the professor gave me a [barely] passing grade... not because I had proved my mastery of the subject, but because he couldn't bear to see my furrowed brow in his lecture hall for another semester.   The friend that sent me the link to the story suffered through at least 3 of those economics classes with me, and also likely passed due to the professor's exasperation.

To his credit, this professor tried everything to make the study of economics more attractive to the skittish minds of his students.  For instance, he taught the principles of supply and demand using a graph containing 'shots' along one axis and 'beers' along the other.  As soon as he linked this basic economic rule to a 'completely hypothetical' drinking game, many of the students immediately became engaged and were able to go on to master ever-more-complex economic theories. 

Me, not so much. 

Don't get me wrong... I enjoyed an occasional shot and beer as much as anyone in the class (maybe more so), but I saw the ruse for what it was.   It was a trick, and you'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to slip any useful information past my mental gatekeepers.

Getting back to the story that my old college friend sent me... he knows two things about me;

1.  I'm a history buff

2.  I was perhaps the only person on the planet with a poorer grasp of economics than he

To tell you more than this would ruin your enjoyment of the story.  Follow this link and read for yourself a fascinating tale... about challenges faced by real people under difficult condition. 

By the end of the story you will find that you suddenly understand all that stuff Alan Greenspan talked about in his press conferences... you know, that mind-numbing jargon that used to make you instinctively want to channel-surf over to ESPN.

Lesson learned:  The retention of any important information is completely dependant upon the way it is packaged.

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Posted by David Bogner on February 20, 2005 | Permalink

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That's a great article. I'm a college student taking macroeconomics right now (midterm on Tuesday -- eep!) so I'm going to have to take the time to sit down and read it thoroughly tomorrow.

(sort of like hiding a your dog's heartworm pill in a big hunk of meat).

Is heartworm a concern in Israel? I'm pre-vet and heartworm is just my favorite parasite ever.

Posted by: Stephanie | Feb 21, 2005 7:42:58 AM

I took micro and macro a couple of years ago. I have no idea how I passed them with all the graphs and supply side this and that. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one with college trouble.

I mostly understand what Alan. G says (when I take time to listen) but the monotone testimony is more distracting than the content.

Posted by: Me | Feb 21, 2005 8:34:41 AM

Stephanie... Good luck on your exam. No, heartworm is not a problem here... I just remember every year in the states we would have the struggle trying to get Jordan to take her pill (she's too smart for her own good). Rabies is the big problem here. Instead of every three years, dogs have to get a rabies shot every year here.

Me... Yeah, with that monotone and dry delivery, I thought he should have been cast in the role of District Attorney on Law & Order after Steven Hill left the show. :-)

Posted by: David | Feb 21, 2005 9:02:53 AM

Great article. I’m about two thirds through it.

A great quote that is thrown out almost in passing is “The non-monetary demand for cigarettes was great, and less elastic than the demand for food.” What he’s saying is that people would save by buying less food when food was expensive, but the demand for cigarettes (“non-monetary” = to be smoked) was constant regardless of price. I.e. people were more flexible with their food consumption then their cigarette consumption!

The general principle that is well established here is that there is no definition of a fair price other than the price that a buyer and seller agree on. This number will fluctuate and still remain fair. All other attempts to fix a fair price are actually unfair. This was written 60 years ago and we still fantasize with non-market solutions to problems. A few years ago, an article in the National Review asked “If Socialism is Dead, Why Won’t it Lie Down?” Maybe because not enough people have read the article to which you link.

Finally, (and off-topic) you’ll be delighted to know that the Bean family is spending a couple of days at my parents’ house, and that my mom is coddling an egg for me even as we speak. Mmmmm!

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 21, 2005 5:31:52 PM

Doctor Bean... With a stick of butter? [tips hat to Ball & Chain] ;-)

Posted by: David | Feb 21, 2005 7:50:57 PM

Yeah, actually she used so much butter that Dr. Bean thought the egg white was uncooked. Finally, he says, "Oh, the floating white stuff is butter!" I think he enjoyed it. It's just a good thing that he has low cholesterol. His diet consists of eggs, butter, beef and diet coke. Of course, butter before beef. Tough luck for me since I, like you, am still trying to lose weight.

Posted by: ball-and-chain | Feb 21, 2005 8:23:14 PM

Um... I thought we were talking about the evils of socialism and the virtues of free markets. No?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Feb 21, 2005 8:25:51 PM

Ball & Chain... On my diet, butter, beef and eggs are all OK! :-)

Doctor Bean... The only true evil is marjarine m(or so says my wife).

Posted by: David | Feb 21, 2005 9:04:18 PM

I adored Econ in Business School, and almost majored in it.
(affixing my geek hat jauntily)
Gus the Wonderdog took bacon-flavored chewy heartworm pills, btw. He could smell them through the package and beg for 'em. :)

Posted by: Lisa | Feb 21, 2005 9:06:51 PM

Lisa... Gus was a lucky dog (in many respects). Our vet didn't tell us there were flavored pills we could give Jordan!

Posted by: David | Feb 21, 2005 9:09:43 PM

Ummmm. YES HE DID! And that is what I gave her once a month for the past 2 years we were in the States....

I'm not saying... I'm just saying....

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