Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Mystery of the Mundane


The world is full of marvels, from FaceTime to air travel. But the real action is in the mundane—those everyday things we take for granted. Economics, and the economic way of thinking, are indispensable for learning how to see the mystery of the mundane. And when we do, it’s awe-inspiring.

This is one of the crucial insights in Paul Heyne’s The Economic Way of Thinking, which I’ve relied on for more than 25 years now (and of which, along with David Prychitko, I’ve been coauthor for more than a decade). Along with another rule—don’t overteach the principles—we can show others how economics belongs in everyday life and not just in the classroom.

Don’t Overteach the Principles

Heyne’s first rule was this: “Teach the principles of economics to your students as if it was the last time they will ever take an economics course, and it will be the first of many.”

In other words, there’s no reason to teach basic economics with an emphasis on the tools of economic reasoning, such as mathematical formulas, graphs, and statistical relationships. Instead, you want your audience to be intrigued by the insights that one can gain by persistently and consistently applying the economic way of thinking to the puzzles and problems they confront in their daily lives. We must show our students—or anyone with whom we talk about economics—how the principles of economics make sense out of the buzzing confusion that makes up a modern economy. And we must show how to clarify and correct the daily assertions they read in newspapers and hear from political figures, axe-grinders, and talking heads commenting on economic affairs.

Our job as teachers is to help students cut through the nonsense and begin to understand the world around them. So we have to outfit them with the right lenses. The Mystery of the Mundane

Paul’s second rule was, “Allow yourself and your students to be amazed by the mystery of the mundane.”

As we say on page 1: “When we have long taken something for granted, it’s hard even to see what it is that we’ve grown accustomed to. That’s why we rarely notice the existence of order in society and cannot recognize the processes of social coordination upon which we depend every day.” Don’t focus exclusively on the miracle of exotic or peculiar things, such as how we can FaceTime with family across the country, what forces enable a plane to fly, or why did Miley Cyrus do that. Instead recognize and be astonished at the feats of everyday social cooperation that you engage in and benefit from. Think about the how, what, why of the shoes on your feet, the hat on your head, the car that you drive, the smartphone on which you may be reading these words. Adam Smith, in attempting to get his readers to appreciate the mystery of the mundane, went through the numerous specializations in production, the exchange relationships that must be established, and the mutual adjustments that must continually be made just to provide the common woolen coat to the average citizen.

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