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October 30, 2009

Two interesting on-line econ assignments....

By Cindy Ivanac-Lillig

I have come across two resources today that I thought were worth sharing. They are interesting just from a personal enrichment standpoint, but I think that they could also provide good fodder for educators searching for new assignments.

The first is a YouTube video from the Cleveland Fed that explains what their Median Consumer Price Index (CPI) is and how it differs from the Bureau of Labor's CPI indicator. The video shows a series of sketches designed to visually present the concepts that underlie the Median CPI. Besides being an interesting way to learn about the Median CPI, this could also serve as a springboard for a class assignment or a contest. You can show it to your class (or find a similar lesson on YouTube that is slightly easier if it is a younger class) and ask groups to create a 5 minute YouTube video explaining an economic concept. This type of YouTube contest could be a lot of fun! You can even ask folks from the community to judge the videos. There are endless directions that you could go with this assignment.

The second resource is Economix's Econoquiz. It is a weekly quiz of economic information spanning historical to current events. It seems that they post it on Friday morning and provide the answers that same night. It is a lot of fun as well and would be a great assignment for advanced economics students. Heck, it is a lot of fun for most of us; you may want to bookmark it here.

Please feel free to post any on-line assignment ideas you have come across and I will begin to highlight some resources from past blogs and commentaries on the site in a more permanent fashion.

Happy Halloween!

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October 23, 2009

Women in Economics Part II

By Cindy Ivanac-Lillig

In my last blog posting, Women in Economics, I shared the news that a woman, Elinor Ostrom, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for the very first time. Her work focused on pooled ownership structures as an alternative to private or public ownership structures. Her work was not about testing out mathematical models with empirical data, but rather an attempt to understand complex group behavior and its outcome on certain public goods.

In my last posting, I shared my concern that her award may be downplayed by the mathematicians that have come to define modern-day economics. And sure enough, this has happened. Although perhaps what I didn't foresee was what I would learn from the discussion that has ensued. In some ways, the award has economists questioning the very scope of modern-day economics. Read Nancy Folbre's Economix entry, The Economics Club -- where she discusses how this award has expanded boundaries not only from a gender perspective, but also just as importantly from the academic discipline's perspective.

Added bonuses of Folbre's piece include links to AEA's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession and the International Association for Feminist Economics.

What are your thoughts about economics as a social science -- have we lost the social part of the science? It is one thing to argue rationality, but quite another to assume that it all can be modeled on your computer.

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October 16, 2009

Women in Economics

By Cindy Ivanac-Lillig

As many of you may have noticed, there are not many prominent women in the field of economics. That changed this past weekend as the folks in Oslo awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics to an American woman, Elinor Ostrom. Her work is primarily in development economics (for those of you who know me – know that I was very excited about this). Her research focuses on shared/pooled ownership as an alternative to public (government) and/or private ownership. She writes extensively on pooled ownership’s effects on the environment, incentives, and public policy.

There is a good article in this week’s WSJ, A Nobel for Practical Economics, detailing her work. The only thing that I am a bit leary about is that this award is being touted as the first given for work that was done studying human behavior versus mathematical models. Don’t get me wrong -- I do actually think that this is a good thing. I know some of you might shudder, but human group behavior is extremely difficult to model. Peer pressure, mutually reinforcing incentives, social capital, etc. are very difficult to model and yet necessary in analyzing how these ownership structures work.

I just hope Ostrom’s work will not be discounted by the computer-modeled economist of our day. I think the two groups – number crunchers and social scientists -- could probably do some great things by working together in the future.

Let me also say that I am confident that there are women attached to their statistical analysis software that will win this award in the future as well.

Congrats to Ms. Ostrom and Mr. Williamson, with whom she shares this prestigious honor. One of her most notable works, Governing the Commons, can be previewed here.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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October 5, 2009

The Positives (and Normatives) of the Healthcare Debate

By Cindy Ivanac-Lillig

There is always that lesson early on in a Principles of Economics textbook about the difference between positive and normative economics. Most of the time, it seems to confuse students and I have often thought about skimming over it as I don't want students to think that the class is going to be that mind numbing for the next 12 weeks. However, it is an important lesson and I usually ask students to find an editorial and identify arguments that are made on both positive and normative terms. I am not teaching this quarter but the healthcare debate may be the perfect case study for this exercise.

There are a lot of voices shouting we should do X and should not do X, but it may be good to look at some actual data. I am not suggesting that getting to the right healthcare reform is simply about correctly analyzing data, but it is a good starting point from which to discuss the potential implications of doing something versus not doing something. There is a good article in the Dismal Scientist from last Wednesday detailing the numbers behind America's uninsured. The current situation is a bit startling, but the trends may be more so. Check it out here. And check out another good entry by Mark Zandi on the numbers behind the cost control proposals. His statistic on the how the total mortgage interest deduction actually costs the government less than the total employer-based healthcare cost deduction is also quite startling. Check it out here.

The healthcare debate is a great vehicle for this lesson as there are many examples of normative and positive theories out there. This debate may provide students with a unique example of a situation in which the dividing line is a bit unclear. The value of good health and good healthcare is difficult to calculate. Dare I say -- there could even be some room for normative arguments amongst economists in this debate!

Good luck everyone. Check out a blog entry from a few weeks back, How much is health insurance worth?, in case you are interested in some more on this topic.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts….

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