Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Why understanding economics counts – Alan Grant

Students, academics and everyone else aspiring to live the life of the mind has a pet subject – an area that we think is neglected by the educational establishment and deserves special promotion. I am no exception.

Therefore, in my first article for The Melting Pot I propose to argue that my own pet subject – economics – does not get enough attention in our education system and that the quality of that system, as well as the thinkers it produces, would be immeasurably improved by the introduction of more economics. This argument applies tenfold if the ‘life of the mind’ to which we all aspire involves the study of anything within the humanities or social sciences, for which economics is the framework holding it all together.

My perspective is subjective. During my state education – and a fine one it was too – I was never exposed to any of the fundamental concepts of ‘the dismal science’ and feel that my education was the poorer for it. While some of my friends have since revealed that they either studied it in school or now work in schools in which it is taught, what is clear is that economics is not taught as comprehensively as it ought to be i.e. in the same way as English, Mathematics or the other social sciences. I imagine, for example, it would be difficult to find a school pupil who leaves school having never had a history, modern studies or geography lesson. So why is this not true of economics?

I acknowledge that schools have budgets, timescales, curriculums and other such limitations to work within and therefore have to make difficult choices as to what is taught and what is left until later on in the academic careers of its pupils. This is the tragic irony of the issue – there are forces at play in the lives of pupils that only an understanding of economic principles can allow them to appreciate, yet most will have to wait until university for that to happen.

To be clear, I do not propose that economics ought to be introduced in any complex way. To do so would be to frighten students away from the subject and economics has an intimidating enough reputation already. There will be plenty of time, for those who choose it, for studying Laffer Curves, demand elasticity, positive and negative externalities, and the rest of economic theory. However, the basic concepts are no more complex than the rest of the secondary school curriculum and in many cases are simply a rephrasing of concepts pupils already understand.

For example, there is no one who can not understand the idea of scarcity, the central concept of economic theory. Scarcity is to economics what evolution is to biology. I would wager that if you asked any group of young people to agree or disagree with the statement: “There is not enough stuff for everyone to have everything they want, so we need to make choices about what to do with the stuff we have”, most would agree. There, that’s the first economics principle taught.

All the other economic lessons that would be appropriate for a group of young learners would essentially flow from scarcity, as does most of “grown up” economics. An understanding of scarcity, with perhaps a nod towards the production possibilities frontier theory (essentially a curved graph showing that with X resources, goods Y and Z can be produced at varying quantities) and the pupils would be well-armed for their academic future.

The reason I advocate a further promotion of economics to our young learners has another element. When I arrived at university I had, thanks to some remarkable English, Modern Studies and History teachers, a basic grounding in these subjects, but none in economics. Once my education in economics had begun, I was able to ask the important questions and discount some of the more fanciful notions that an education in the humanities and social sciences, absent of economics, can lead to.

In practice, an electorate with a greater understanding of trade-offs and opportunity costs,  amongst other economic concepts, might not be seduced so easily by ‘free’ things. They might ask, for instance, what else might have been done with the resources used to provide ‘free’ prescriptions to those who could otherwise provide for themselves? ‘Free’, in this instance is a misnomer – a case of concentrated benefits/dispersed costs. The electorate might also ask: what is the cost of providing ‘free’ university education in terms of nurses, doctors or college places?

I want the best for Scotland and that means wanting the best for its future generations. If we can commit to equipping them with the intellectual tools required to think critically about their governments, and what they do within their daily lives, then we can set them up for a positive future full of smart choices.

If we can get pupils to think about the world in terms of the scarcity that forces us to make difficult choices; if we can get students to remove the word ‘free’ from their vocabularies and instead think about the opportunity cost of what is being sold to them by politicians using that word as cover, and if we can get them to think about whether and why governments should act in policy areas then we might bring about a more informed, more critical electorate in the long run.

P.S. For a practical example of how this might be achieved, please visit the Crash Course: Economics section of the Crash Course YouTube Channel. They do some excellent work in economics and other subjects.

Alan Grant is a politics and culture blogger for the Huffington Post