17 Apr 2018

A teacher comments on my book

Andrew sent these comments awhile back, but they may be interesting for you:
I thought The End of Abundance was a really great tool for my course. In particular, I was teaching an online course on water economics for students in an online Master of Water Resource Management program. My course was the sole economics course in their curriculum, and there was considerable heterogeneity in my students’ math and economics backgrounds. In short, the only thing I could rely on was that my students could handle Algebra-I level math. Consequently, the course focused much more heavily at building economic intuition and using economic concepts to form written arguments.

I found the chapters I assigned from Part I to be better-suited for my course than the chapters I assigned from Part II. Broadly speaking, I found Part I chapters to be more closely and clearly tied to canonical economic concepts than the Part II chapters. In Part II chapters, it was more difficult to disentangle “textbook concepts” from more philosophical points or your own policy suggestions. In particular, I used chapters 7, 8, and 9 to teach about asymmetric information and moral hazard, benefit-cost analysis, and environmental externalities. That worked all right, but I think my students had a hard time understanding these concepts outside of the context of your chapters.

The above comments are from my perspective as an instructor. In fairness, I should also share my impression of my students’ thoughts. I think many of my students liked the Part II chapters quite a lot. Many of my students work in water management or environmental assessment capacities, and found your direct treatment of water management in California to be remarkably relevant to their own experience.
Besides being pleased with this nice use of my book, I have two responses:
  1. Part II of TEoA (and its successor Living with Water Scarcity, which presents the same material in a less-academic, free-to-download format) is about the political and social dimensions of water scarcity that must be considered and included in water management discussions. That duality (explained in this blog post) is why I call myself a "political economist" rather than just "economist."
  2. My policy suggestions often acknowledge complex institutional realities that economic models ignore. One of my favorite ideas, for example, is to turn a bunch of "non-point-source" polluting farmers into a single "point" responsible for all the runoff in their area, as a means of avoiding the traditional economic response (i.e., giving up). Such a suggestion (see Chapter 4 of Living) has almost nothing to do with economics, pricing or externalities, except in the way it avoids individual free-riding by assigning responsibility to a group. Such applications of the Coase Theorem are more familiar to political-economists working in the tradition of the Ostrom School than economists.
Bottom Line: A book presents ideas, but those ideas are only useful if you can integrate and apply them to your situation.

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