Sunday, February 14, 2016

Reteaching economics in practice

Reforming economics teaching has been a heated topic of debate since the financial crisis. My personal views on this align closely with The University of Manchester’s Post Crash Economics Society (PCES), who have been calling for a pluralist approach that would rid economics teaching of its neoclassical core, and replace it with a critical study of economic questions and the diverse methods and approaches being taken to understand and answer those questions. The group Reteaching Economics has similar aims. Certainly a focus on empirical methods would be elevated to a core element, as the question of how can we know things is a primary concern to critical analysis. In all such an approach is not an excuse to avoid mathematics, but to embrace a the wide range of mathematical tools in use.

Change like this is a difficult task, and will ask a lot of students and teachers alike. But in my view it is also a difficult task to teach and learn the bland, abstract and often irrelevant economics that fills the undergraduate textbooks today. Even very complex concepts can be reduced into small components with memorable analogies that make them digestible. And if done right, a new approach should trigger more of a desire in students to learn and apply these new concepts and tools.

I have tried to shift my own teaching towards this approach. The purpose of this post is to share an example of taking an existing course, and the various constraints that came with it, and shifting it towards a more critical and pluralist teaching approach.

Last year I taught Managerial Economics and The University of Queensland. The student body were not all economics majors, but were drawn from across the university’s disciplines.

One constraint was the prescribed textbook (which I could not change by the time I began teaching). It contained repeated lessons in applying optimal control problems willy-nilly to possible problems that might face a firm manager. Like how should I profit-maximise when I have two goods that are substitutes?

Solving an equation that relies on knowing the cross-price elasticity between your products is actually not very useful. The important questions are much deeper and more critical, like “How do I know the own-price and cross-price elasticities in real life?” I mean, are firms really just changing prices all the time to check on their elasticities? Or “What is the current price and why was it set at this level?”

So what did I change in the course?

I made sure that before they embarked on the “textbook” concepts that they were given a broader outline of the big ideas that are implicit in the textbook view, yet completely hidden. Like “What do prices do?” And, “If prices allocate resources, why do firms exist?” You can download my first week’s notes here (I make lecture notes a seperate reference document and use lecture slides as a tool to build and explore example problems during class). To see my emphasis on providing a pluralist view, this is one of the exam questions I snuck in.
Which is the most accurate comment on the following statement - “Firms maximise profits”?
A. Always, because by definition they are profit maximisers.
B. Never, as profits do not always accurately reflect long run payoffs.
C. Often, and always in preference to potentially conflicting objectives.
D. Sometimes, but they may achieve this through intermediate objectives.
I also cut short many weeks of textbook regurgitation and replaced it with concepts and tools that don’t fit in the paradigm, but are nevertheless quite useful in practice. For example, I introduced a simple analysis of real options in investment decisions, which captures many of the realities of irreversible firm decisions (here). I also included a week on networks and evolution that introduced some simple models to capture some of the more interesting firm and market dynamics (here), and allowed us to have informed discussions on questions like performance pay for individuals or teams, and revisit the reasons firms exist at all. When I cover information problems, I discuss adverse selection, but also beneficial selection, and look at how the data shows the opposite of what the textbooks predict in Australian health insurance markets.

I also changed the assessment items from almost purely multiple choice and short answer exams, to a mix of some multiple choice, short and long answer questions that allow concepts to be applied to real life situations and data, and an assignment.

The assignment was about a real company facing real changing market conditions. Students were expected to determine the relevant data they needed to collect to complete the parts of the assignment, then find it, then use it (run appropriate regressions), then interpret it, and present it all in a professional way. Some of them told me it was the best assignment they had done in their whole course in terms of actually learning something interesting, and producing something they can be proud of. This was a relief. I had spent a lot of time preparing it.

Some of the economics majors said it was the only assignment they had ever been asked to do! This was quite worrying, but completely in consistent with economics courses globally. The PCES survey showed that a fifth of economics subject have multiple choice questions make up more than 90% of the course grade, and in half of subjects they make up over 50% of the grade. As a general rule, economists are trained to solve equations and answer multiple choice questions.

So what is stopping these changes from happening across the board?

First, few academics maintain the connection with the wider business and public policy community to have a ready supply of topical recent examples where economics can be applied. They are so narrow in their research focus, that when teaching outside this area, they simply conform to the standard textbook.

Second, many academics are trained neoclassical economists only. When my exam draft was reviewed by another academic for errors, they noted that they had never heard of real options, nor the evolutionary and network models in my course. This becomes an even more serious problem in courses where completely wrong models still fill the textbooks, such as the case with the money multiplier. I have had to stand up in class and say “Ignore chapter 19 of the textbook, it is simply wrong.” Some economists are too loyal and “profession proud” to say something like that.

Third, it is a lot of work for staff. For my teaching last year I spent about 18 hours preparing each lecture. This meant that I had new examples to use, new data, and updated readings that applied economic ideas to recent events. For the assignment I also had to research and write my own version of the assignment to make sure I was asking something that was possible to do, and that the data would reveal something that wasn't apparent on the surface (in this case that a firm which is often thought of as being "high end" actually sold inferior goods). When you want to have students research relevant recent real-life examples, this is what you have to do.

Fourth, some students prefer to just get the grade and don't like the ambiguity that a more pluralist approach entails. They have learnt how to study for multiple choice exams, how to solve equations, and so forth. Having to actually think, while being uncertain about how your thinking will go in the assessment, becomes a challenge.

I’d be interested to hear how others have gone about improving their economics teaching to be more critical and pluralist, and what constraints they faced.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Land tax becomes respectable part of tax debate

After decades of political pressure that systematically clawed back state and local government’s ability to tax land, the debate has now swung back to this most efficient of taxes.

Land taxes are apparently a hot topic for debate at the years NSW Labor annual conference.

New sweet-talking Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even said the formerly unspeakable words on national television over the weekend (at the 6.30minute minute mark). Though he says while it is a great policy economically, it is politically 11 out of 10 in terms of difficulty. No $hit. When your voter based is dominated by homeowners, and your party made up of the country’s wealthiest landowners, you ain’t got a chance.

Let’s do the hypothetical anyway. How much could be raised from state land taxes?

In NSW just the exemptions to the current 1.6% (2% over 2.5million in value) land tax amount to $700million per year.

In Queensland the exemptions to the current land tax regime cost the state $1.3billion in 2014-15, with the components of the costs of the exemptions summarised in the below image.

Yes, you will see a $23million per year land developers concession - at tax with the exact opposite incentives to efficient tax, reducing the cost of not developing land.

In Victoria land tax concessions are forecast to cost $2.9biliion in the current financial year, amongst a bunch of other concessions that amounted to a total of $4.9billion. See the summary from the budget papers below.

So just in these three east coast states we have about $5billion per year just in land tax exemptions, plus many billions in other exemptions, including on gambling. If we remove the land tax concessions and double the land tax rate to around 4%, these three states could raise another $13billion every year.

But that is just the start of the tax concessions for the nation’s wealthiest.

What about another tax loophole? The capital gains tax exemptions. Treasury estimates it costs the country $56billion per year.

Or discounted taxation on super contributions? There’s another $27billion per year.

There are simply billions lying on the table in obvious tax loopholes for the rich, with land tax exemptions just one of many.

We have seen one big change - saying the words land tax has become acceptable for a politician. Now let’s hope this change starts snowballing, and that states can fight the propaganda of vested interests to use their tax powers more wisely and efficiently.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Die solar roads. Just die.

Humans are quite smart for hairless apes. But sometimes I wonder whether we really do have the edge over our distant cousins.

Here’s an example. Solar roads. For some reason the most idiotic idea ever still seems to gain popular attention and funding. France is now committing to investment in solar roads.

But, you are thinking, that actually does sound quite interesting with a lot of potential. Oh how innovative.

I know right? The urge to jump on board this idea seems irresistible. But that’s our monkey brain doing the thinking. Because when you switch on your rational mind the whole this looks like a big joke.

Our instincts are not good at thinking about a new idea in relation to a particular alternative. It takes conscious rational thinking to realise that for this to be a good idea, we need to think of alternatives to compare it to. Our default is to compare solar roads to no solar investment, hence the urge to think it sounds great.

So here’s an alternative. Solar panels anywhere but roads!

The solar roads concept also implies it is solving a problem that doesn’t exist. In this case, a problem of insufficient space for solar panels. But that is absolutely not a problem. Estimates suggest there are 400sqkms of just residential roofs space in Australia that could accommodate solar panels. More than enough to our total electricity needs, and that ignores the large industrial and commercial spaces available.

Here’s my very brief list of why the idea is stupid.
  1. Roads have things on them that block the sun, like cars, people, trees and buildings shading them and so forth. 
  2. Roads cannot be angled to efficiently capture sunlight. 
  3. Roads get dirty. 
  4. Roads need a superstructure above the solar panel that will reduce efficiency. 
  5. Building solar roads means expensive excavations and repairs that will block traffic flow. 
  6. The technology to do it is rubbish. 
You may have heard that in Amsterdam there is a trial of a solar bike path. I think the title of this article sums up their result “That Fancy New Solar Bike Path In Amsterdam Is Utter Bullshit"

That article says it all.

What about an better alternative? How about building a roof over bikeways covered in solar? This alternative has a few things going for it
  1. No excavation 
  2. Cheaper 
  3. Keeps cyclists dry 
  4. Keeps snow off the bike path, meaning less ploughing 
  5. Can be angled to the sun 
  6. Is proven technology 
  7. Provides shade in hot climates 
Plus more.

And, it has been done before quite successfully.

So please, turn off your monkey brain. And when your friends on social media get excited about solar roads, send them here. Or send them this.