Bayla, Paul, Rodney, and Maria have signed up for a course called "Introduction to the Economic Conversation," taught by Arjo Klamer, Deirdre McCloskey, and Steve Ziliak.
Maria and Rodney have probably come to the right place. But if Paul is only in search of the road to riches he'd better try another course. Bayla, too, may be disappointed. Economics is not a how-to formula for making and keeping a Swiss bank account. And it can't reveal a 12-Step Program on How to Run a Business or How to Be the Next Bill Gates.
What it can do is improve your understanding of the market and non-market institutions that influence our lives as consumers, workers, business owners, and government policy makers. So on second thought, Paul and Bayla, too, may be in the right course. Economics gives you insight into issues like poverty and global warming (Rodney's and Maria's concerns), and it helps you understand why such issues remain so controversial, even among economists. And, although economics can't give you a trick for getting rich-if it could then trading in the market, you shall soon see, would eliminate the trick-a study of economics can help you avoid making quite a few economic blunders, such as listening to stock tipsters in your investments or "allocating fixed costs" in your business.
Economists themselves come to economics for various reasons. Some are inspired by their concern for the problems people face. Robert Lucas, an economist at the University of Chicago and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in economics, for example:
I have always liked to think about social problems. It may have something to do with my family. We always argued about politics and social issues. I studied history . . . but came around to the view that economic forces are the central forces in history, and started trying some economics.
James Tobin, who won the Nobel Prize for economics fourteen years earlier, tells a similar story:
As a child of the Depression [of the 1930s] I was terribly concerned about the world. It seemed then that many of the problems were economic in origin . . . economics looked like the decisive thing to study. The second thing was that you could have your cake and eat it too, because it was an intellectually fascinating subject.
Another Nobel Prize winner (1998), Amartya Sen, from northeast India, chose to study economics after witnessing as a child the Bengal famine of 1943, during which 2 to 3 million people died:
I think the human face of economics is important for my work . . . . The specifics of human issues often tend to get neglected in economics because it's much easier to deal with human behavior in a stylized form, seen in terms of profit maximization only. In such analyses you tend to lose certain aspects of social relations. There are other aspects that one has to look into - human behavior and its complexity, human freedom and human rights - which have implications on public policy.