Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Economics for the rest of us

The only economics class that I ever took was the typical one of equations, graphs and a glossary of technical terms and abbreviations whose meanings and relevance were lost to me as soon as the class was over. Perhaps if I had taken Robert H. Frank’s introductory economics course at Cornell University the results would have been different. In his latest book The Economic Naturalist - In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas, Frank has put together a collection of one of his writing assignments: with a limit of 500 words, pose and answer an interesting question about an observed pattern of events or behavior using the economics principles of the course. To wit:

Why don’t more people wear Velcro shoes? (behavioral economics)
Why do women endure the discomfort of high heels? (divergence between individual and social interests)
Why are concerts so much cheaper if you purchase series tickets? (pricing strategies)
Why do we leave tips for some services and not for others? (wage patterns and employment practices)
Why are brown eggs more expensive that white ones? (supply and demand)
Why do stores post signs in their windows saying that guide dogs are permitted inside? (cost-benefit principle)
If a “cup” is supposed to be eight ounces, why is the smallest cup of coffee listed on the Starbucks menu a “Tall”, which contains 12 ounces? (discount hurdles)

You get the idea. This is a variation on the theme that I previously encountered in Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: economics for the rest of us in bite-size pieces that relate to our everyday experiences and help us make sense of them. Economics need not be boring. When framed as a series of interesting questions, the answers can be equally fascinating.

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