Thursday, January 14, 2010

OK, so what I supposed to teach them now?

One of the courses I teach is an international economics course targeted mostly at non-majors. This semester, on the first day I decided to have the students answer some of the questions from Brian Caplan's poll in Myth of the Rational Voter. In the poll, Caplan poses a bunch of questions about various aspects of economic policy to both the general public and people with PhDs in economics in order to compare the results and try to identify biases and errors in public opinion. So for instance, one of the questions asks whether immigrants are a big problem for the economy; of course, almost all the economists say no, but a significant proportion of the general public say yes. When I gave these questions to my students, most of the answers were about what I would have expected- somewhere in between the general public view and the PhD economist view- with one glaring exception:

Generally speaking, do you think trade agreements between the US and other
countries are good for the nation’s economy, bad for the nation’s economy, or
don’t make much difference?

0- Bad, 1- Don’t make much difference, 2- Good

According to Caplan's results, the average response from the general public is 1.33, while the PhD economists are more confident, coming in at 1.87. My class, it turns out, is even more convinced about the virtues of trade agreements than the economists: none of them put "0- Bad," two of them answered "1- Don't make much difference", and the other 42 all said "2- Good," for an average score of 1.96.

Now, I thought half the point of a course like this is that I was supposed to hammer home the idea of comparative advantage and the gains from trade. But apparently it's closer to the opposite. So what am I supposed to teach them now?

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