Thursday, December 31, 2020

My experience with CORE

I have just finished my first full term with CORE's "The Economy" (in the Spanish translation, "La Economía", with Catalan slides -available upon request) as the adopted textbook. 

The experience has been absolutely positive. I recommend all instructors who have not taken this step, to throw the old expensive and useless textbooks to the dustbin. The old books do not reflect the reality of the economics profession in the last 30 years and, what is more important, are not useful to understand many of the more pressing problems of humanity today, such as financial crises, pandemics, inequality or climate change. Although this academic year I will only be teaching the first (mostly micro) part, I hope to teach the whole material in the future. It has been a great experience and the feedback from students has been positive, and not only because the e-book is totally free. As I had expected, the uncertainty about the type of classes (eventually, mostly on-line) is easily accommodated by the nature of the material in CORE. The contents are better than in other textbooks and it supports and encourages better, more engaging, teaching methodologies. As I said in an article last summer, "The Economy" shows that Economics is not about supply and demand, but it is about understanding the world, and it is about changing the world. Fairness is at least as important as efficiency, and many times they can come together. 

By the way, I taught the course to political science and sociology students, and I think that I convinced at least a good fraction of them that they need to understand modern economics to be better at changing the world. As economist Colin Camerer recently said, "to change the rules, you need to understand the rules." 

Now I face the challenge of an online exam. Ideas are welcome. I conceive exams as part of the learning process. That is, the best exams are those with unforgettable questions, where you have to think hard and you keep thinking after the exam. One of the best examples I encountered on this was with Spyros Vassilakis, a professor I had in my PhD at the EUI in Florence. He used to give us the questions, leave the classroom and come back after two hours to collect the answers. He knew that talking and looking at materials was pointless, because the only chance of succeeding at the exam was to think hard for two hours."The Economy" is complementary of Sam Bowles' book "Microeconomics" (2004), and his and Halliday's forthcoming intermediate Microeconomics book. I hope to be teaching all these materials forever to become fully familiar with all of the contents and details, which nicely complement each other. The best way to learn something, is to teach it. Incomplete contracts and how they relate to the structure of power and inequalities in society are a common thread. There are interesting comparisons between "The Economy" and Bowles (2004) and the forthcoming micro textbook. The 2004 book gives the full picture, the new textbook presents it to intermediate undergraduates or early graduates (without the evolutionary bits), and "The Economy" presents the basic ideas to first year students or to others with similar backgrounds, although bits and pieces can be used in other years. 

"The Economy" is complementary of other materials such as this wonderful video by Sam Bowles and Wendy Carlin, where Bowles mentions in passing (in 2018) epidemics as a form of non-market interaction, and he associates Government to Fear and Market to Greed as examples of the coevolution between institutions and norms. Obedience to government and material incentives are important, but social norms and loyalty in communities are also to be incorporated in our prescriptions. What matters more cannot be bought and sold. Other related materials are this JEL article, this piece in the AER, and this one in VOX-EU/CEPR.

I hope that many economists join the mission to spread these ideas. What about that as a new year resolution? Happy 2021!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

BINO or chaos: the perplexity of an anglophile

As the supposed transition stage nears its end four and a half years after the referendum, I read from British sources (mainly, the BBC, The Guardian, and The Economist), that Boris Johnson has reached the end of his particular political one-way road. Now either he accepts that full access to the single market means giving up some sovereignty (but now, without a seat in the relevant table; this would be BINO, or Brexit in Name Only), or he plunges his country into a chaotic economic scenario of tariffs, disruption and social and financial decline. It is easy to put the blame on Johnson and his cabinet, but one should not forget that all this started with the irresponsible referendum called by David Cameron in 2016.

It is still diffcult for me, an anglophile, to understand how such an admired society can fall into this abyss. Yesterday I bought the novel "Middle England," written by Jonathan Coe, to try to understand it better. Perhaps I should look not far away from me, as the friend who recommended the book to me, told me that he saw clear analogies between English national-populism and Catalan national-populism, especially about the differences between dominant ideas and values in big cities and the countryside. Perhaps I have been only paying attention to what happens in big cities.

I don't have much more time today. I could quote articles published any day in the British media. Let me just select a couple of paragraphs from today's opinion pages in The Guardian. Columnist Andrew Rawnsley writes:

"The government’s own “reasonable worst-case scenario” planning warns of massive queues to ports and huge delays at them; shortages of food, drugs and petrol; price hikes on many essential goods; panic buying at supermarkets; violent clashes between British and EU fishing fleets; disruption to critical services; the compromising of law enforcement and counter-terrorism; and possible civil disorder. You would not want to be a Welsh farmer facing unsurvivable tariffs on lamb exports. You would not want to be someone with a medical condition that requires imported drugs. The government will probably manage to fly in Covid vaccines even if it takes the entire RAF to do it, but its own no-deal contingency planning raises the spectre of delivery problems with life-critical medicines. You would not want to be a manufacturer faced with sudden new tariffs on your exports and broken supply chains. You would not want to be one of the 300,000 people forecast to lose their jobs if a calamity Brexit is inflicted on an economy already ravaged by the coronavirus."

And conservative former politician Michael Heseltine writes:

"I don’t know exactly where all this posturing will end up by January; but I do know that – deal or no deal – we will in theory and in practice be outside the European Union. That is the policy on which the government was elected; they have a mandate and I would not vote against their legislation. I believe that it will be seen as a Tory measure and I will have nothing to do with it. This government will be – and should be – held responsible for quite simply the worst peacetime decision of modern times. I know of members of the cabinet who believe this as firmly as I do. I cannot understand their silence."