Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Middle School Economics 2

The following is a suggestion in a middle school text on civics and economics for teachers to discuss with their students:
The U.S. Economic System – Identify – What are some ways the government helps protect workers? By establishing minimum wage laws, laws guaranteeing workers' safety, and laws to protect people from discrimination – Make Judgments – Do you think that the U.S. Government should control parts of our economy? Why or why not? Possible answers: Yes – without government control some companies would take advantage of the public interest by polluting, creating monopolies, and other problems. No – the government should stay out of business because it interferes with people's ability to make a living.
The material in italics are suggestions about what the answers to the questions might be. As you might guess, I have concerns. How about you?

UPDATE 10-24: As I read the text, it seems to me at this point the students do not have sufficient understanding of the economic world to make these judgments. Perhaps this is proven by the answers given to the question how government helps protects workers. Minimum wage laws do not protect workers, unless you mean only the workers who keep or are able to get jobs after the minimum wage is imposed. Minimum wages lead to unemployment, which surely cannot be protecting those unemployed workers who would otherwise have had jobs. And, is it ironic? In the list of ways government helps workers we have both minimum wage laws and protecting people from discrimination. Of course, if people have preferences for discriminating in hiring employees, minimum wages laws reduce the cost of acting on such preferences, and thus lead to increased discrimination that government wants to protect people from. In other words, if students had sufficient economic understanding, they would perhaps be as perplexed as I am, when their teacher notes that government protects workers with minimum wage laws. And, they would perhaps be curious about why government would attempt to protect workers with minimum wage laws and anti-employment discrimination laws, when the first policy makes it more likely there will be a perceived need for the second policy. But, perhaps there is an opportunity here as well to teach the lesson that being a politician is a pretty good gig because there is always a need for making more public policy to deal with the messes made by your earlier public policies.

Now consider the government control question. The answer yes to whether government should control the economy is enormously na├»ve, even though this sort of stuff is standard political bill of fare. I think the idea that companies take advantage by polluting seems nonsense to most economists (and remember this is in the section of the textbook teaching economics). One of the greatest sources of pollution are all of us in our role as consumers and workers when we drive cars to play and to work and to school and to shop, even when we shop for “needs” such as the weekly groceries. Companies pollute for the same reasons we as consumers pollute, we find it is cheaper than collecting the waste to dispose of in some other way. Of course, the monopoly part of this answer is nonsense because most monopolies are created, even enforced (see unions), by government. In addition, the answer completely neglects one of the most important issues concerning this question, and that is whether government can get sufficient information to do better with any identified problem than would voluntary action, not to mention whether the incentives faced by our governors, even when they are our elected representatives, will choose to act in ways that would direct government to truly serve the public interest rather than rent seeking. And, the no response is simple and inadequate for the same reasons. The incentives and information issues both suggest government cannot accomplish what it states it seeks to accomplish.

So, here again, I have to wonder if trying to bring economics to our middle schools might be such a good idea. I do think our middle school students should learn about how the world around them works. But, the quotes I've posted here suggest to me it is pretty likely that what our middle school students will learn from their textbooks on Civics & Economics will be at odds with learning how the world around them works.

1 comment:

Jaeson Madison said...

I apparently worked this up at the same time you were adding your updated comments, so my apologies for any areas where I may be occasionally covering the same areas.

The obvious problem with the first question is that it’s a loaded question. The writer failed to consider the alternative view that perhaps there are no ways that the government helps protect workers, and in doing so isn’t so much asking a question as covertly making a statement. Essentially the question is “It is obvious that government protects workers, would you care to list some of the ways this is done?”

As for the second question, there are two main issues. First off, following on the heels of question number one, it would seem an answer is already outlined. If the first question firmly establishes, without student input, that the government is useful in protecting workers, wouldn’t it imply a yes answer for question number two?

Moving on to the provided answers, the “yes” answer obviously lacks economic awareness, but is at least composed of fairly common assertions (i.e. if someone was going to suggest an answer from this perspective, the one listed is more or less what I would expect). More troubling to me is the version of a “no” answer they provide, because it’s clearly just a lip service attempt, and lacks a basic understanding of the opposing position. If a child wrote this I would suspect it was more an effort to echo the sentiments of his/her parents, or other influences, than to actually consider the issue and offer a legitimate answer that they’ve put some genuine thought into. Usually for those who’ve honestly considered it, the issue goes beyond simply being able “to make a living.” Impairment in that faculty is merely a consequence of the greater hardship that comes from interference such as this.

Actually, as a side issue, I question the usefulness of offering suggested answers at all. What purpose does this serve? Doesn’t it encourage most children not to think about the question and instead write their own version of one of the answers offered, or the closet thing they’ve heard to it outside of class? Why not ask a question and let it stand at that? If the kids can’t answer the question then the teacher has learned something just as interesting as getting a collection of excellent answers, namely that the topic has not been understood and needs reapproached. It is just as useful to find out what students don’t know, as it is to learn what they do.