Textbook Economics

I love Economics but I can take on almost any job related to the subject, except teaching the subject itself. The thing about teaching Economics is that it bears a very high risk of misleading students and possibly even scaring them away from the subject. For me, as most of the knowledge on Economics is self-taught and I realised from this process that the inconsistency evident in the subject with a mixed of both quantitative & qualitative explanations that are incoherent makes it hard for a teacher to present the subject or to ‘teach’ it in the traditional sense. One must first appreciate the inherent flaws in the study of the subject, understand how the assumptions affect the fragile equilibria that textbooks claim to exist before working on the inner substance that would involve a lot of critical analysis. I therefore, refer to this whole body of theoretical knowledge as ‘Textbook Economics’.

One who qualifies as the messenger of ‘Textbook Economics’ (ie. an economics teacher) usually satisfy a few characteristic that prevents them from becoming true economist. Of course, I am making the assumption that economics teacher are working on the same things as economist (though often they are not). Teachers, as we have come to realised, is focused on maximizing the results of students and thus work based on the assessment. The bias-ness towards ‘Textbook Economics’ of our syllabus inevitably force teachers to mislead students on the subject more easily. Students would see the subject in a perspective that render the subject rather unreasonable and in some sense, overly elitist about the mathematical abilities of economic agents. At the back of their minds, they have a whole set of notions that drives them to believe that assumptions always saves the day – if the theory doesn’t work, it is because the assumptions have collapsed. The joke is that in our essay answers, this happens most of the time and eventually, what you get is a subject that generates useless models that makes wrong predictions and then get students to tell people how wrong the concepts are.

That is all about ‘Textbook Economics’. What our teachers have not revealed to us, is the beauty of the dream of an economist, the construction of models that enables us to study a gigantic network of interactions that has been with mankind since societies were formed. We are not told how to make use of the conceptual foundations to create tools for our analysis. Instead, we are forced fed pure opinions, much like the way science force-feeds conceptual truths that have no bearings on the physical world itself. But unlike science, Economics’ search for truth has not been a smooth one and revolutions in the subject has reduced it to a state of confusion. Still, it’s a good time to be in the subject of Economics because we now have sufficient computing power to model many realities that we have not been able to study in the past. These realities are scenarios that can potentially refute fundamental theories and allow us to eliminate a couple of axioms of the subject.

‘Textbook Economics’ pushes the responsibility of tearing down the nonsense presented by traditional theories of Economics to the students who find it hard to criticize the subject both due to their own immaturity when first exposed to the subject and also because of the cultural taboo of questioning authority (especially academic authority in the education system). In Singapore, it takes a curious mind and stubborn character to push for truths in academia. For Economics, being a subject that’s inherently unstable to begin with, the problem is harder to solve. Products of ‘Textbook Economics’ who have excelled in traditional assessments would thus have the characteristic of being detached from the knowledge, presenting a double standard with regards to the knowledge he presents and the truth he believes in. At the same time, they may delve into deeper nonsense if they make no attempt to question what they are learning.

‘Textbook Economics’ erects a high barrier to the real world. It is hard to get out of the comfortable position of mathematical precision coupled with a strong set of ‘morally sound’ arguments about free market (all the stuff about Parento Optimality – which is in fact never obtained although the averages comes close); and combined with a set of assumptions that can be easily pushed out as the scapegoat for any failure in predictions, ‘Textbook Economics’ is not vulnerable to assaults from newcomers into the subject. The ivory tower that houses it stays firm but is situated far from reality – though the practical useless-ness of ‘Textbook Economics’ is not fully understood and appreciated. Problems with ‘Textbook Economics’ operate at levels of microeconomics and macroeconomics. Microeconomically, transport costs and irrationality or non-mathematical rationality of agents hinder the operation of the market. Ignorance of temporal dimension is another major blow to economic analysis that even Human Geographers have long realised (and thus decide to make use of their own social analysis tools and indicators instead) Macroeconomically, once the stupidity of agents get out of hand (too many people are irrational), the equilibrium system collapse because people over-react or under-react to changing conditions, producing thermostat-like oscillations in the system that never comes to rest.

I have essentially explained the implications of ‘Textbook Economics’ in our education of the subject and perhaps also why many students simply hate Economics. To pen down something about the world that you do not believe in is really hard – worse still for a person like me, who even knows that what I am to pen down during my Economics paper, is simply to satisfy the whims and fancies of examiners, assessors and my teachers, rather than for an inquiry into the subject in concern.


  1. Vib, I’m thinking maybe I want to do econ in college instead of chem/pre-med… then we can niao each other’s economic theories in the future.

  2. OMG, Mib and Economics don’t seem to gel that well leh…And I don’t intend to do highly theoretical economics and I guess you won’t too. So I fear we might be cutting each other’s throat in the public markets.

  3. Actually… I seem to have a penchant for theoretical supply-side macroeconomics.

    Anyway, Vib you need to get a facebook acct.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *