No right answers here

There are few things hard-working high school students dislike more than ambiguity. We’ve taught them to master “right” answers, and it frustrates them terribly when there isn’t one.

For the past week, I’ve been preparing my econ students for something called the International Economic Summit, which is a one-day Model UN style event (created at Boise State University). Each team of 3-4 students represents a nation, and they need to do a variety of activities aimed at “improving the standard of living” in their nation.

They trade with other nations, secure and repay loans, invest in long-term development, debate proposals for improving global prosperity and test their economic knowledge; along the way, they earn points.

After a practice round last week, one of my students asked: “Should we spend money on economic development, or should we try to make sure we end with more money than we started with?”

Yes and yes. You should do both. She didn’t like that answer.

“But what should we do? Is it better to end with more money?”

Well, that earns you points. But so does investing in infrastructure.

She stared at me in frustration and tried to rephrase the question, but I just couldn’t answer it for her. The best thing about the Summit is that it requires students to manage a lot of competing goals and make the best decisions they can. Kind of like real life.

Her insistent questioning (which went on until I cut her off) bothered me, and it made me think about what I’ve been teaching her all semester. I’m trying to give my students a kit of economic tools for analyzing situations, but instead, have I given her merely a box of economic facts?

To prepare for tests, certainly students need to know some facts and formulas, like what counts in GDP or how to adjust interest rates for inflation.

But the big picture questions in economics? There aren’t any right answers for those. Those are what we need students thinking about.

Should we raise the minimum wage? Should we encourage consumers to “buy American”? Should we worry about the National Debt? Should we pay more in taxes?

Intelligent people disagree on all of these issues, and we need our students thinking and talking about them in all of their complexity.

I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorite econ videos, Keynes v. Hayek Round 2, in which Friedrich von Hayek, representing classical economists, says: “The economy’s not a class you can master in college… to think otherwise is the pretense of knowledge.”

Economic development is certainly not a concept you can master in a class, and I’m glad the Summit makes it complicated and ambiguous.

Pretty much every interesting problem in the real world is complicated and ambiguous, and our students need more practice with that.