Friday, September 24, 2010

Economics: Why Isn't It Required Coursework?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am sometimes amazed by how little the average person in North America seems to know about economics. The educated can debate vigorously about concepts or fine points of monetary policy, stimulus packages, or tax reform, and I don't mind arguing with someone that treats Milton Friedman as more of a deity than I do. What annoys me is when an interlocutor has no concept of the role of taxation, or the difference between socialism and communism, or doesn't understand that he or she might not be counted as unemployed even though they aren't working.

I guess it shouldn't be surprising. Where I grew up in Washington state, no course in economics was required in order to graduate from high school. I did take economics as an elective in high school, and despite being taught by a football coach, it was one of the most practical courses I took in those four years. That was the first time I ever saw a form from the Internal Revenue Service. It was the first time I ever looked at stock tables in a newspaper (try finding those in most papers today!) in order to see how a fake portfolio was doing (boy do I wish I had really held the shares of Union Pacific that I pretended to have then).

Despite having course materials donated by a business association (I regret that I cannot remember which one), it was not all about capitalism. I specifically remember a test question asking about the difference between socialism and communism--something that was not even covered in the college-level Economics 101 course that I took. After a unit on different economic systems, there was extensive coverage of different ways to save money--I probably would not have known about anything except savings accounts had I not taken that class, never mind the rules for contributing to an Individual Retirement Account.

Combine that semester-long high school course of the basics with years of listening to American Public Media's Marketplace, the first public radio show I ever started listening to not long after its debut in 1989, and not much more education is needed to become economically literate. Marketplace provides information on economic issues from a consumer perspective and does a great job of teaching about contemporary policy issues. In contrast, the college-level course I took on economics was so highly theoretical that I'm not sure I've used any of what I learned there outside of arguing about policy.

Economists spend a lot of time lamenting the lack of savings and reliance on credit in the United States and Canada. It seems to me that investing in a little practical education, mandatory economics courses including things like compound interest would make a lot of sense, and I don't understand why it isn't contemplated more often.

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