Teaching economics in schools

At the weekend I spoke at a conference in Berlin organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation on teaching economics to teenage school students. I took them through my preferred method, which is to avoid jargon and equations, but to build up understanding instead by starting with first principles and building up logically upon them.

Value, I said, is necessarily subjective. Because we are different we value things differently. Value is in the mind; it does not reside in the object itself, and it is because we value things differently from each other that we trade. From value I build up to price, and to specialization and trade, and so on. Those who have looked at my “Economics is Fun” videos on YouTube will see how this works. My audience took delight in the fact that my first 30 seconds dealing with value completely destroyed Marx’s labour theory of value, and with it ‘surplus’ value and exploitation and all the class hatred that follows from it.

My aim fundamentally is not to teach students a set of facts or rules, but to inculcate a way of thinking. I take the view that understanding is more important than learning.

Sometimes I teach this in schools by working through ten widely held and widely propagated views that are in fact wrong. These include claims that the world is running out of scarce resources leaving none for our children, or that the world will become so over-populated that it cannot sustain the numbers.

In showing why and where these are incorrect, I try to have the students thinking things through for themselves and taking a more critical attitude toward popular nostrums. My experience has been that young people appreciate this approach, and that it armours them in the years to come against much of the nonsense that politicians in particular talk about economics.

Does the GOP need a new stool?

Does the GOP need a new stool?

This is the question that upcoming TNG guest Tim Stanley’s been asking in a recent blogpost for the Daily Telegraph. To give a bit of context:

the Republican stool is at risk of losing its balance. As William F Buckley once argued, support for the GOP historically rests on three conservative legs: free market libertarians, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks.

However, in the absence of a strong anti-communist message American politics has drifted leftwards, whilst the GOP’s ‘Middle American’ unity has been replaced with a “discordant alliance between wealthy grey technocrats and populist crazies”. The legs of the Republican stool now look wobbly and unbalanced, leading to some uneasy and often contradictory politics. As a consequence, the Republicans fail to provide a convincing or consistent alternative to the liberals and Obamanomics.

So, what’s the solution? Tim suggests that it lies in a ‘rugged constitutionalism’, where politics is conducted at a state level, individual freedom carries real significance, and Republican governments promise to largely get out of the way. Certainly, this has real appeal to libertarian-leaning conservatives both in America & the UK, but what’s the likelihood of it actually becoming an election strategy?

Fortunately, under 30s are invited to ponder this question further at the TNG with Dr Stanley on this very subject tomorrow.

The event starts at 6pm in the ASI offices, and RSVP either on Facebook or to events@adamsmith.org.

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Freedom Forum 2014

It's that time of year again- building on last year's fantastic conference, Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014 is only a month away!

Put the 11th- 13th April in your diaries, and head down the the UCL Institute of Child Health for a weekend of seminars, workshops and socialising with liberty-minded individuals.

The line up for this year's Freedom Forum is looking the be the best yet, with speakers coming from across the world. Amongst those confirmed are Cody Wilson, creator of the 3D-printed gun and bitcoin annonymising DarkWallet, and fellow American and serial liberty-promoter Dr Tom G. Palmer. There's also world expert on the universal basic income Phillipe Van Parjis, Detlev Schlichter, author of Paper Money Collapse, director-general of the IEA Mark Littlewood, and pro-drug law reform ex-cop Tom Lloyd, with loads more to be announced – and of course, there's the ASI's own Sam Bowman. 

Seminars cover topics from lifestyle freedoms to macroeconomic policy, immigration to the age-old question: But who will build the roads? Plus, there's workshops in journalism from City AM's Mark Sidwell, public speaking from Peter Botting, and an entrepreneurial session curated by The Entrepreneurs Network. 

All of the above, plus meals, drinks and evening events from only £29- and accommodation tickets a mere £39.

To find out more visit the Liberty League website, and book your tickets here.

Event: Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014
Date: Friday 11th April (7pm) to Sunday 13th (5pm)
Location: UCL Institute of Child Health, and Clink78 Hostel

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Isn’t it wonderful how student loans are starting to actually work?

I thought this was an amusing little complaint from some recent student. They seem to have rather missed the entire point of having student loans to pay the tuition fees in the first place:

I see friends of mine recently out of university struggling to find graduate schemes, permanent jobs or anything beyond zero-hour contracts. My degree has been vital to my job, but it saddens me to say that, were I 18 again, I wouldn't choose the subject about which I felt passionate – I'd make my choice based on job opportunities and pay.

What amuses me about this is that of course this is the very reason that the system was changed.

There was indeed a time when it didn't matter all that much which subject you did at university. And it was also at that time that you not only didn't have to borrow to pay the fees, you got a government grant to support you while there. But the other side of that system was that only 10% of the age cohort went. Thus a degree was indeed a signifier of having some brains to get in and further, the persistence to then graduate as well.

Now we have near 50% of the age cohort going. And thus the simple possession of a degree is not going to be a useful signifier to future employers. And it's also true that with 50% going it's not going to be the taxpayer that picks up the entire bill. Which leads us to our system of loans to pay the fees. And look at what then happens as a result of that.

Students start to think about where the pay will be good after they graduate. Good pay for any particular job of course being a signal that there is a (relative) lack of people both qualified to and willing to do that job. So by making the students responsible for their own costs (in however subsidised and dilatory manner those loans are collected) we have actually provided them with the incentives to study something that is of use to the rest of us.

Isn't it wonderful, introduce market signals into the university system and we get people preferentially studying for those careers where we've a shortage of good people? My word, quite remarkable, markets and incentives work.

One more thing we might note: there have indeed been some governmental actions over recent decades that can be said to have worked just as this one has. They're always when the government decides to bring in more of those market incentives and price signals though. There might be a more general lesson in that somewhere….

Liberty comes home to Manchester

For those not living in or around the London area it can be difficult to attend the top events on the libertarian calendar. It makes sense for the capital to be our focus, but it doesn’t have to be to the detriment of elsewhere.

The Liberty League is currently organising its first one-day regional conference. It takes the best quality speakers to create a day-long event much larger than the average libertarian society social.

Our first one will be held in Manchester on Saturday, the 26th of October. This city was a natural choice given its liberal heritage and the emergence of a strong libertarian society in the last few years. The conference is open to all not just students and we're sure that the bargain ticket price of £4 and brilliant speaker list will be a big attraction.

Make sure to put the date in your diary as we have:

Jamie Whyte on 'Tax Evasion and Democratic Predation’

John Meadowcroft on 'Prostitution: for and against'

Kevin Dowd on 'Private Banking’

Steve Davies and Tim Evans: A panel discussion on the case for private healthcare

If that isn’t enough we have a room with a buffet dinner included in the ticket cost and a final speech from the ASI’s very own Sam Bowman. Tickets are available from UKLibertyLeague.org.

It’s important to keep reaching out to those on our periphery. Part of doing this is making libertarian events as accessible as possible to as many as possible, and Liberty League is committed to helping to do so. These one-day events are a great way to kick-start libertarian groups in towns or cities and refresh those that are not as active. We need a strong broad and inclusive movement right across the UK, and the more chances people have to network and interact the better.