The Economic Conversation:
Preface to Teachers

The book began years ago, in 1985, after a conference in Amsterdam. Two of us, Klamer and McCloskey, found ourselves in a Jugendstill café discussing economics, teaching, and economics textbooks. For the price of four hot chocolates, European style, we talked right through a rainy afternoon. Our differences should have kept us apart. McCloskey was and is a Chicago School economist, enthusiastic about free markets and down on government intervention, while Klamer combines cultural conservatism with a Northern-European skepticism about the fairness and efficacy of market processes. We concurred, however, in our concerns about economics as a discipline (which we love), especially with regard to teaching it.

We worried about how our students at Wellesley, the University of Chicago, and the University of Iowa had reacted to economics. A professor of economics does not have to read the reports of William Becker or Michael Watts or Michael Salemi to know that too many students are bored stiff by a subject about which we economists care passionately. You know from your own experience and from the reports of Becker et al. that even the students who stick with it forget much of what they learned the day after the exam.

One problem, we concluded, is the strangeness of economics. Economists speak a language that is foreign to students, as foreign as, say, French. Like taking a French course without visiting France or Quebec, most students cannot relate economic reasoning to their everyday world, or vice versa. We decided that it was a rhetorical problem — a lack of attention to one's audience, in this case to the students — and that economic education could benefit from a rhetorical perspective. Eureka.

Another problem was that most textbooks present economics as a series of answers, often without making clear what the questions are — or could be. It contradicts what is promised by the same textbooks, that economics is an "approach" and not a body of settled conclusions. The over-boiled quotation of Keynes on "what an economist is" (namely, what an economist does) has been betrayed. We are told that "markets are efficient" or that "cash welfare is better than food subsidies." But what is the question? Too often the textbooks don't say. So students fail to see economics for what it is, a living body of knowledge, full of evolving arguments in its research, teaching, policy, and ethical arguments. And the style of most textbooks (to mention only one part of their rhetoric) is usually so single-voiced and authoritarian that students are left without a voice. Little wonder they're bored. Being economists, we searched for a solution — initially, at the bargain price of another cup of hot chocolate.

Klamer and McCloskey came out of the Dutch café wanting to write a textbook that would be considerate to novices and yet fair and interesting to the discipline. We would write it as if we were in a real classroom, in conversation with real students and professors, acknowledging them for what they already know, and inviting them to become central participants in the economic ways of thinking.

Klamer and McCloskey got started in the late 1980s, and thanks to Kenneth King and Alan Venable, two exceptional editors of books, drafted a lot of the book in the early 1990s. After a delay of quite few years—professors as you well know are often distracted by multiple projects!—we were pleased, and relieved, when Steve Ziliak, a long-time collaborator of McCloskey's, agreed to join our team. Steve is an imaginative scholar and a prize-winning teacher. Like Klamer and McCloskey he is a "rhetorician" as well as an economist. McCloskey is a professor of communication; Ziliak holds a degree in rhetoric and has been offered a professorship in it; Klamer is an internationally recognized scholar in rhetoric, too.

The present team, by the way, has real ideological range, which is pretty unusual in this market. McCloskey is a Chicago School free-marketeer, though recently also a progressive Christian and a postmodern literary type, too. Klamer is an evolving European social democrat. Ziliak is actively committed to racial and social justice, leaning towards the market for some solutions and towards the state for others.

Economics is argument

We present economics as an ongoing argument rather than as a body of settled facts and laws. Above all we try to teach the art of arguing as an economist. We want to draw students into the economic conversation. Such an approach has a better chance of leaving students with economic understandings they can actually use. And anyway it has a better chance of getting them to think.

We are not interested in showing the scientific status of economics. It doesn't need it. We are uninterested in impressing the students with how Very Scientific our field is. But we are very interested in bringing students into the scientific conversation. By "conversation" we don't of course mean empty chatter. We mean serious arguments, the sort you and we just experienced at the meeting of the ASSA in January. It's a serious matter to decide, say, whether you believe markets work quickly or sluggishly in this or that circumstance. That particular conversation is at the heart of the disagreement in macroeconomics, and of course it matters in micro too.

We don't pretend that students know as much as we do about our discipline and its disagreements. But neither do we speak down to them, regarding them as know-nothing novices. We embrace the Maxim of Presumed Seriousness, presuming that our reader is a serious thinker whose intuitions and values give her a voice in the economic conversation.

With contrasting viewpoints

We highlight free-market arguments, Chicago's strength, but also present coherent ways of criticizing Chicago, from late Marxian to empirical Post Keynesian. The alternative perspectives emerge through a series of dialogues. Arguing, we show, is a mode of higher learning. Says Klamer, "Yes, I've learned from our arguments about the difficulties in regulating such a thing as an economy." McCloskey: "And I've learned that economics needs to be seen from a wider social point of view, in conversation with other disciplines." Ziliak: "And I've learned that empirical evidence does not easily change the minds of economists committed to a certain theory or ideology." We carry these arguments right into the text, in the style of team teaching (and incidentally, we've team-taught in actual classrooms—in Iowa City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Rotterdam and Hilversum, The Netherlands—for some twenty years.)

But still makes progress

We present economics as a progressive research project. Students are shown that the economics they learn now, no less than the physics they learn now, will certainly evolve; that economics entails research, much of it quantitative and mathematical; that there are unresolved empirical questions, many of an exceptionally subtle character; and that by means of critical inquiry our beloved economics progresses towards ever better knowledge of the economy.

We teach economics by making it speak (and listen) to students

The book, we hope you find, is personally and engagingly written. We draw on our collective 85 years of university economics instruction and research. But we also draw on our experience in journalism and literature, poetry and rhetoric, history and politics. Klamer wrote for many years a weekly column for a major Dutch newspaper, and is well known in Dutch politics. Ziliak has published poetry, "haiku economics," for example (he was a friend and student of the great African American poet Etheridge Knight [1931-1991]), and has been employed as a social worker and labor analyst. McCloskey has held faculty positions in fields as disparate as economics, English, philosophy, history, communication studies, and art and cultural studies, and has authored or coauthored (with Klamer and Ziliak, for example) articles and books on economic history, ethics, statistics, and rhetoric. Two of the authors are economic historians in their scientific work, so we also include historical illustrations and examples to enliven the text. And in other non-academic regards we offer experience of life. Ziliak, for example, has significant work experience in at least nine different occupations, from Cajun cook to professor. Each of us has lived in a variety of places and circumstances: city and country, glitz and slum, with family and alone. And each of us works and travels internationally, and has significant experience of living outside the United States—Ziliak in Italy, and McCloskey for six years in England and Holland, for example; Klamer is Dutch, though he spent 18 years studying and teaching in the United States. A globalizing team for a globalizing economy, you might say.

Yet core concepts are kept prominent: for example, micro is unified by choice

Mainstream devotion to "rational choice" motivates the main microeconomic arguments. But even here constrained maximization and the Chicago School do not rule exclusively. The dialogues ensure it. We explore exceptions and alternatives to the free-market-cum-rational-choice perspective, including for example a novel treatment of externalities and the Coase Theorem in which we highlight the Coase's little—understood "second theorem": the idea that the assignment of property rights is critically important when high transactions costs make it hard to strike deals among the interested parties. It's one case of many showing students that the best policy combines markets and government.

Throughout the text we honor a venerable and still strikingly important, but almost forgotten, tradition in economic pedagogy by using basic principles of accounting to define the constraints facing various decision makers. This allows students to learn something they see as practical—accounting certainly is—while also mastering key economic concepts such as the differences between stocks and flows, wealth and income, consumption and savings.

Macro is not "one darned model after another"

Our treatment of macroeconomic topics is current yet connected to the major traditions of economic thought. The backdrop is the classical model of the economy, in which all markets are perfect, in a sense to be defined. We build up the aggregate demand and supply model and use it to interpret six major macroeconomic issues: inflation, unemployment, domestic instability, international economic relations, growth, and macroeconomic policy. Free markets, institutions, and fiscal and monetary policy are presented as the steering mechanisms.

And all reasoning revolves around the circular flow

Another unifying analytical device is the circular flow diagram. Virtually every macroeconomic chapter orients the student to where we are in the circular flow. The diagram, which is after all a piece of social accounting fundamental to all economic thinking, reminds students of the interconnectedness of an economy.

With frequent Concept Checks and Technical Workshops

As in engineering, the economic way of thinking entails the identification and solving of problems. In addition to the usual end-of-chapter questions and problems we introduce Concept Checks at strategic points. The Concept Checks ask the student to apply the ideas just explained. Answers are found at the end of each chapter.

We also provide Technical Workshops to explain certain mathematical or graphical points, such as how to calculate percentage changes or how to shift demand and supply curves. They help students to focus more effectively on the technical points, and to realize that economics is more than a pile of numbers and graphs.

And conversation throughout

The text is interspersed with conversations among students, other economists, and the authors. The conversations show right on the page that economic knowledge, like all knowledge, is constructed and contested. Students come to think of themselves as participants in the conversation. The practice follows the liberatory educational philosophies of John Dewey, Paolo Freire, bell hooks, and others (McCloskey is amazed that she, a devout Chicago Schooler, has come to agree on educational philosophy with radicals like these; but the radicals this time are making common sense). The conversations serve to simulate a well-functioning classroom, by anticipating, for example, common misunderstandings and by acknowledging that some of the "misunderstandings" of students suggest in fact worthwhile critiques of economics.

The book does all of this—plus what the other textbooks do

Our introduction to The Economic Conversation is:

  • comprehensive, but more concise than most;
  • well organized, but more effectively so, employing various unifying devices, such as the diagram of the circular flow;
  • balanced, but more explicitly so, in its a fair presentation of contrasting viewpoints, exemplified by our unusual Heterodox Boxes;
  • internationally oriented but, given our international backgrounds, more obviously so;
  • well written but, since we have a reputation to defend on this count, more so—we hope—than most.