Economists, look to beauty

When you mention you teach economics, who among us hasn’t heard someone blurt out, “Oh, I hated that class!” or sigh, “I just never ‘got it’”? There are probably many reasons for this but I suspect their teacher did not have an appreciation for the “rhetorical triangle” or Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: Logos (logic), ethos (credibility), and pathos (emotion). Economists often act like logos and ethos are enough. They are not!  When we construct arguments with only the two it’s like trying to create a stable two-legged stool. Good luck, something is missing.

Economists need pathos to create an argument that is memorable and doesn’t fall apart. In this short post, I want to explore the role of beauty to make that emotional appeal.

Christian author Donald Miller writes, “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.” How can we show students our love for economics and the beauty of the economic way of thinking? Through discussion of what excites us. From helping students to see economics “in the wild” of everyday life to helping students see the magic of markets. All of this improves their understanding of principles and economic concepts. First, let me discuss the mundane and then we can discuss the magic.

When I was an undergraduate, every Friday night I would head to Sonny’s BBQ with some buddies. On Friday nights they had the all-you-can-eat baby back ribs. Normally, the rib re-orders came promptly and the sweet tea refills flowed. But, on one particular Friday night the service was pretty bad and we talked over empty plates and cups.

Why? It wasn’t busier than normal. They didn’t seem understaffed. Our waitress was paying attention to other tables but not our table. Why? Well, our normal group was a party of four but we invited a couple more friends that week. For six person tables, automatic gratuity kicked-in and the waitress was paying attention to tables where her gratuity could still rise or fall with the quality of service. She had us locked in at 18 percent, and being poor college students, she likely didn’t expect us to tip more than 18% if she gave good service. Economics in the wild! The power to explain the mundane.

Share your own stories with your students (or on this blog!). When is the first time you saw economics in the wild? When is the first time you realized you were an economist? For inspiration on the mundane, check out Robert Frank Economics Naturalist and his conversations with Russ Roberts on that book as well as dinner table economics.

For a transition from the mundane to the magic consider having students read, “I, Pencil” by Leonard Reed. Though the video with Uncle Milt is wonderful too. The remarkable journey of a simple pencil!

Build on those ideas either before or after you have them read “I, Pencil” or watch Milton Friedman. Hand out chocolate chip cookies to students and ask them to describe in as much detail as possible how to make a chocolate chip cookie (no, not their grandma’s recipe). Then, help them to see something so simple like a cookie required vast networks of exchange coordinated through a price system that nobody controlled. Inconceivable!

For another great magical treatment of economics, check out Russ Roberts’ poem, “It’s a Wonderful Loaf” (accompanying video on the same site). The emergence of order from seeming chaos is profound.  

We rarely feel more human than when we are on a journey. Beauty has the power to place us on that path of inquiry that awakens a desire to know more. In that search for beauty, we shouldn’t discount the mundane. I tell students there are few things more exhilarating than seeing economics in the wild. You feel like you have a decoder ring to explain the puzzles of our social world. On the other hand, I have always found the magical explanations special and profound, to be appreciated like works of art. Yes, they increase understanding but they also evoke a sense of awe. Both the mundane and magical are beautiful and economists should look to beauty more. Our arguments will be better if we do.

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