The Indian Economy Blog

October 3, 2005

Basic Questions Of Economics

Filed under: Basic Questions,Human Capital,Miscellaneous — Prashant @ 5:50 am

Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell describes the “economic naturalist” writing assignment in his introductory economics course.

The specific assignment is “to use a principle, or principles, discussed in the course to pose and answer an interesting question about some pattern of events or behavior that you personally have observed.”

“Your space limit is 500 words,” the assignment continues. “Many excellent papers are significantly shorter than that. Please do not lard your essay with complex terminology. Imagine yourself talking to a relative who has never had a course in economics. The best papers are ones that would be clearly intelligible to such a person, and typically these papers do not use any algebra or graphs.”


The initiative was inspired by the discovery that there is no better way to master an idea than to write about it. Although the human brain is remarkably flexible, learning theorists now recognize that it is far better able to absorb information in some forms than others. Thus, according to the psychologist Jerome Bruner, children “turn things into stories, and when they try to make sense of their life they use the storied version of their experience as the basis for further reflection.” He went on, “If they don’t catch something in a narrative structure, it doesn’t get remembered very well, and it doesn’t seem to be accessible for further kinds of mulling over.” Even well into adulthood, we find it easier to process information in narrative form than in more abstract forms like equations and graphs. Most effective of all are narratives that we construct ourselves.

The economic-naturalist writing assignment plays to this strength. Learning economics is like learning a language. Real progress in both cases comes only from speaking. The economic-naturalist papers induce students to search out interesting economic stories in the world around them. When they find one, their first impulse is to tell others about it. They are also quick to recount interesting economic stories they hear from classmates. And with each retelling, they become more fluent in the underlying ideas.


The [assignment] paper is not a complete substitute for the traditional syllabus. But the lasting impact of the course comes mainly from the papers. When students come back to visit during class reunions, the equations and graphs long since forgotten, we almost always end up talking about the questions they have posed and answered during the intervening years.


Over the years, my students have posed and answered literally thousands of fascinating questions. My favorite was submitted by Jennifer Dulski, who asked, “Why do brides often spend thousands of dollars on wedding dresses they will never wear again, while grooms often rent cheap tuxedos, even though they will attend many formal social events in the future?”

To answer her question about wedding dresses, Ms. Dulski argued that because most brides wish to make a fashion statement on their wedding day, a rental company would have to carry a huge stock of distinctive gowns – perhaps 40 or 50 in each size. Each garment would thus be rented only infrequently, perhaps just once every four or five years. So the company would have to charge a rental fee greater than the purchase price of the garment just to cover its costs. In contrast, because grooms are willing to settle for a standard style, a rental company can serve this market with an inventory of only two or three tuxedos in each size. Each suit can thus be rented several times a year, enabling a rental fee that is only a fraction of its purchase price.

I love this idea. After all, this learning-through-writing rationale has been a primary driver for my blogging adventures.

Think an application of Frank’s idea would have huge payoffs in India. As any casual perusal of the Indian newspapers will demonstrate, knowledge of elementary economics is conspicuous by its absence. lacking. So even a basic primer would be a big improvement.

Basic Question # 1: Why are so many (Indian) journalists clueless about basic economics?

And, as a corollary, why not start a Basic Questions column in an Indian newspaper/ magazine? Something like the Financial Time’s Dear Economist?


  1. Why do I blog?

    Prashant I like the concluding remarks on the article where it struck me on a question I had been asking myself today. The following words were very meaningful to me.

    “Daniel Boorstin, the former librarian of Congress, used to rise at 5 each morning and write for two hours before going into the office. “I write to discover what I think……”

    Comment by Mani Pulimood — October 4, 2005 @ 5:27 pm

  2. [...] we explain at more length in our Pragati essay, in terms of immediate public policy priorities, incorporation of economics in the education curricula is essential for multiple reasons – to increase the employability of graduates, to help manage [...]

    Pingback by The Indian Economy Blog » Economic Illiteracy — July 8, 2008 @ 7:06 am

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