Joining the Conversation
1. About this economics

How has the first year in economics been for you? Did you find it interesting? Tedious? Easy? Difficult?

Bayla: I thought economics was a breeze. It all made so much sense to me.

Paul: There's so much to know. How will I ever remember it all for the final exam? I'm a business major, but I found economics to be a difficult subject. Analytically it's pretty demanding.

Maria: I agree. But I also found it more interesting than I thought I would. I'm even thinking of majoring in economics. After hearing me go on and on about the course, my mom picked up your book and is reading it!

Rodney: Economics is incredibly important. Who could disagree with that? In the end it is all about social justice. The underlying question is how to realize the most welfare for most people. But what bothers me, though, is that economics cannot resolve fundamental disagreements. I had hoped that we would have been able to reach some kind of agreement among each other; instead we have learned how each of us can find an affirmation of his or her basic opinion in one economic theory or another. Then again, without disagreement, there would be no progress.

Klamer: The last statement is Keynes's! I am pleased!

Economics is difficult. There is so much to know: the concepts, the arguments, the graphs, the equations-not to mention the gazillions of unusual facts and institutions that permeate world economic history. Certainly economics is a way of thinking that does not come easily to most people. Even among the most famous economists the real "naturals" are the exception rather than the rule: Abba Lerner, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and the late David Gordon are among the few who've gotten it immediately. Few others have. Most of us have to do economics, to use it and speak it, over and over again, if we are to master it. (If you think you worked too hard this year to understand economics we recommend you introduce yourself to the life of John Stuart Mill, his early childhood years on up to age 19, famously recorded in his Autobiography. We do not however advocate the teaching methods of his economist father!)

In Chapter 1 we compared economics with a foreign language. Maybe now you are better able to appreciate the analogy, oui? Like a foreign language, you have to continue to speak economics lest you forget how. Verdad, no? Therefore we urge you to keep doing economics, especially if you have liked studying from this book and going through the course. Por favor, va a la biblioteca. Please, go the library; and read as many books and catalogued journals beginning with call number "H" and "HB" as you can handle. Continue reading the business pages in your newspaper to see whether you can apply the concepts that you have learned in this book. And in your science, history, literature, philosophy, and political science courses, try to apply a relevant economic concept or two to the topic at hand. You will find that it enhances your understanding of the other discipline, and teaches you and your classmates something about economics. Capice? When economics entered adulthood in the 18th and 19th centuries biology and philosophy were closely married to it; in some subfields-for example, ethics, political philosophy, game theory, and insect biology-they still are. Take other courses in economics, and, what the heck, consider becoming an economist. Economics is an important subject and deserves the attention of people like you.

McCloskey: I've said it before and I'll say it again: the economic way of thinking became clear to me only later in my studies. It's like with the songs or prayers you learn early in life: you know the words by heart but not what they actually mean. It took time before economics became second nature.

Klamer: Same here. In my case teaching the subject helped because I was then compelled to answer all those innocent and oh so important questions that students ask (terrifying new professors!) Writing this book did not hurt my understanding either.

Ziliak: Half of my family is in business and finance, the other half is in (or is inspired by) the radical social work of the Dorothy Day-type: Catholic democratic socialism. I was therefore drawn to economics and the important double-lens it puts on individual and collective outcomes. But intellectually speaking I came from a philosophical background, British empiricist and Continental, and at first I resisted the simplistic assumptions of economic models. I was, you could say, a skeptic without bank. Now I appreciate those simplifying assumptions.

McCloskey: All this goes to show that economics is a way of thinking - I'd almost say, a way of living. Once it's in your veins, economics colors everything you see. It can change your life.

Ziliak: At this price, I'm buying.

Maria: Dios mia. Oh my gosh, I'm not sure I would like that to happen to me; I like who I am now.

Klamer: Personal change can be scary. To many people, my wife included, economists are like the cynic whom Oscar Wilde defined as the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

McCloskey: Yeah, and our critics remind me of Oscar Wilde's romantic: someone who knows the value of everything and the price of nothing. It's good that we are around to point out that cleaning up the environment has costs which, if considered well, may not always be worth the cleanliness. Dreaming about a world without poverty and unemployment may be wonderful but the economic way of thinking confronts you with economic reality and gets you to think carefully about incentives and macroeconomic consequences of policy proposals. All of that is tremendously important.

Klamer: I agree. But I also agree with my wife and other critics that economists should not always have the last word on policies and do well to keep our mouths shut. I shudder at the thought of a world without romantics.

McCloskey: I think we three can agree that it's not a simple either/or, Romanticism or Economy, and that the pragmatists are among the only ones who seem to get it. We need to be focused on what works in which circumstance.

Caption: Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) wrote his most famous book, Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems (1632), in dialogue form. Science, he perceived, is argument. The Church did not agree: for agreeing with Copernicus that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun, and for arguing against the Ptolemaic belief that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, he was condemned and placed under house arrest.