Sunday, October 20, 2013

a teachable moment on property rights

One of the first ideas economics students learn about long run growth and a stable economy (say, in an introductory micro or macro class) is the necessity for protecting property rights.

Protecting property rights is important, they learn, because you need incentives to invest and grow. If you are always worried about the state coming in and confiscating your property, or taking it without just compensation, then you will never invest resources and develop. Students are provided with tons of examples of corrupt governments (usually in Africa, or ancient parts of the world that were slow to develop) as empirical evidence "in support" of this claim - these countries do not respect property rights, which is (apparently) why they are poor.

Interestingly enough, many developed countries today did not take this path toward prosperity. There is a kind of "kicking away the ladder" story going on here, as there is with trade protection in Ha Joon Chang's work, and it's very teachable. Because in fact, even in liberal democracies such as the U.S., property rights have routinely been compromised in the name of economic growth or efficiency. These are not just "rent seeking" cases by the way, but are fundamental traditions in property and contract law.

Perhaps most strikingly, you can find, hidden deep within the court records, judges who actually argue that looser protection of property rights is what promotes the incentives to develop! Which provides an excellent thought piece for students, to consider the political bias underlying the protected property rights view (which, if anything, was rhetoric that has its roots more in the institutions slave south, which needed to establish the master's "dominion" over his slave, than in the industrial north).

Here is Judge Livingston in a classic U.S. water rights case from 1805 (Palmer v. Mulligan, you can find a discussion of the case and others here:
defendants had the same right opposite their ground. . . must be restrained within reasonable bounds so as not to deprive a man of the enjoyment of his property, merely because of some trifling inconvenience or damage to others . . . Were the law to regard little inconveniences of this nature, he who could first build a dam or mill on any public or navigable river, would acquire an exclusive right, at least for some distance, whether he owned the contiguous banks or not. . . . the public, whose advantage is always to be regarded, would be deprived of the benefit which always attends competition and rivalry.
In the italicized section of this opinion, you can clearly see Livingston arguing that an infringement of property rights could be justified because it breaks up monopoly ownership, thereby promoting competition in land use. This is certainly a "teachable" moment for anyone looking for an accessible, fun, intuitive way of breaking down biased ideas of property rights in mainstream economics teaching.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Use Backward Design to Help Your Students Get the Most Out of Your Courses

Backward design for Introductory Heterodox Economics

Many of us have our favorite books or papers (or even blog articles) which we think best capture the criticisms of mainstream economics. Naturally then, we want our students to follow in our footsteps: read the same critique and hope it sticks with them the same way it did with us. So, we design our courses around those readings and, well, "hope for the best" when it comes to what sinks in. Tests or other assignments "prove" to us how well they did that.

Backward design goes about things a bit differently. It says we should start with what we want to achieve from a class, and only design the syllabus and reading list until the end. What kinds of knowledge or skills would we like our students to acquire? We then figure out what would be sufficient evidence to prove that they had acquired that knowledge or those skills. Finally, we get to work on designing our syllabi in a way that meets those learning and assessment goals.

When looking at things this way, most of us will back up a bit and be more honest with ourselves: before we get to the good stuff on critique, we want our students to come away with some grasp of core economics. This helps them to become economically literate and it also allows them to appreciate our coveted critiques.

Goal: I want my students to have a solid grasp of the principles of demand and supply, of utility and production theory, and of what it means for an economy to be in equilibrium.

Evidence that I have achieved the goal: This could vary according to the instructor. For some, taking a multiple choice test about the definitions and themes from the above-mentioned topics and getting a passing grade is sufficient. For others, writing a complete paragraph or essay explaining a newspaper article using the themes and terms from class is sufficient. For others, solving problems is sufficient.

How I will structure my course to obtain the learning and assessment of the goal: You probably want to address a combination of the points made in the preceding paragraph. In addition to stimulating lectures, you might give a multiple choice exam or two because they urge students to master the material at the middle or end of a class. You might have a few in-class writing assignments as a way to challenge students to articulate and extend what they have learned to the real world. And finally, problems (done as a group or individually) are a great way of grappling with the inner analytical mechanisms of a theory in a way that multiple choice questions or essays simply cannot do.

Now that your students have a solid grasp of economic theory, you can then turn to critique. But how to go about it - just have them read articles and discuss the points in class, or do problems with modified assumption sets? Use the same method above (i.e., backward design), but tailor it to your own needs in the course. If articulation is an important value, you might consider seminars or writing assignments. If a solid grasp of the argument is what you're looking for, a writing assignment or problem set might be more suitable. But try to be as specific as possible and always remember to work backward - don't arrive at the specific readings or quizzes/assessments until you've figured out what exactly it is you want students to take away from your course.

Note: some of this information came out of discussions at the very-informative UMass Pedagogy Workshop in Academic Year 2011-2012. See the following link for more materials.