\”Talking about the wisdom of economists in polite company is like talking about the honesty of politicians or the lips of chickens. Yet in the face of this prejudice, I maintain that economics has useful lessons for understanding the world. My wife says I hold this belief because I am an evangelist, with economics as my religion. Perhaps so, but I have also been asked many times, by many people—at venues as diverse as conferences and cocktail parties—to recommend “just one book” that explains economics. These people aren’t looking for a treatise on the beauty of the free market, or for a lecture on the need for government regulation. They have their own views on politics and policy, but they are self-aware enough to recognize that at least some of their views are built on a shaky or nonexistent understanding of economics. I can sympathize. There are dozens of books out there on economics—freaky and otherwise—but I’m hard-pressed to point to a readable non-textbook that would give a soup-to-nuts understanding of the key principles of economics. I hope that the book you’re reading will impart a working understanding of both micro- and macroeconomics, not enough to prepare you for setting up your own economic forecasting business, but enough that you can read and speak about economics topics with greater confidence and conviction.\”\”I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering if I’m out to push a certain set of economic policies, and if so, whose side of the political fence I’m on. Such skepticism is understandable, but here’s the honest truth: If you’re wondering whether this book’s contents are slanted toward liberal or conservative economic policy—or toward the Democratic or Republican Party—the short answer is no. Professional economists of all political leanings use the tools and concepts I will discuss here. Economics is not a set of answers, but a structured framework for pursuing those answers.\”
For an idea of what the book tries to accomplish, maybe it\’s useful to tell the back story of how this material has percolated a long time, through five episodes of thinking about how to teach intro economics.
Episode #1 started in the late 1980s was when I worked with Joseph Stiglitz in putting together his introductory economics textbook. This led to episode #2, which was when I started teaching large-lecture introductory economics courses at Stanford University in the late 1980s. This in turn led to episode #3 a few years later, when Stanford got a Pew Foundation grant to bring over groups of young diplomats from countries of eastern Europe. Many of them had been educated and trained with the expectation that they would become part of the larger Soviet diplomatic apparatus, but with the break-up of the Soviet Union, those expectations has become obsolete. Groups would come over and spend a few months based at Stanford, with side trips to see other parts of the U.S. They sat in on various courses, but also had an international affairs course and an economic course just for their group. For a few years while the grant money lasted, I gave the economics lectures, which were were an intuitive and nontechnical 15-hour version of the intro economics course.
This led to episode #4, which was a call from the Teaching Company, a firm based near D.C. I\’d won a student-voted award as the outstanding teacher of a large lecture class at Stanford, and they wanted to know if I would record a version of that course for their adult education lectures. I\’d never heard of the company, but I had the lecture notes pretty much ready to go from my talks to the eastern European diplomats, so I said \”sure.\” That course was first recorded in 1994; the most recent edition (the third) was recorded in 2005. This led to episode #5, when Penguin/Plume started having talks with the Teaching Company about turning some of their more popular courses into books. They asked if I would take a stab at doing this with the economics book. This involved a huge cut in the word count from the 18 hours of lectures, because they didn\’t want a tome, and then updating the material as needed so that it would cover the economic events of the Great Recession and its aftermath.
I\’m pleased with the book. For those looking for an actual introduction to economic thinking, and a bunch of examples and applications, this book should help to organize the concepts and clarify the tradeoffs. I suspect that the book may also be used as background reading for those who want to teach an intro economics course with almost no graphs or equations. Buy a bunch and give \’em out as party favors! Send a copy to political figures! Use them as paperweights!
Here\’s the review from Library Journal, which I thought captured the flavor of the book:
\”Taylor’s (managing editor, Journal of Economic Perspectives) volume can help conversationalists looking to raise the bar for their watercooler chats and casual readers who want to understand better the current economic condition of the United States. Taylor uses simple language with field-specific vocabulary to explain economic concepts, and each concept is successfully reinforced with a real-life—and usually entertaining—example. He hits all the subjects that might interest a layperson, such as division of labor, supply and demand, wages, competition and monopoly, inflation, banking, and trade, for a total of 36 petite chapters—just enough information to give the reader a basic but well-rounded understanding of the subject. VERDICT This highly readable, nonpoliticized look at some of the economic principles that shape our society, presented in an engaging, anecdotal fashion, is highly recommended for armchair economists and anyone with a general interest in the state of our economy. —Poppy Johnson-Renvall, Central New Mexico Community Coll. Lib., Albuquerque