Introduction to Economics

General description

This is a one-semester course that is intended to be what its title states, an introduction to the social science of economics. Its purpose is to introduce students not only to a number of basic micro- and macroeconomic concepts, but also to acquaint them with a particular kind of thinking about social issues—namely, economic thinking. In college, this course would be considered “liberal arts” economics, as opposed to business economics. The use of graphs, charts, and equations is eschewed, and, as much as possible, the inscrutable jargon of the professional economist is avoided. (Obviously, it can't be avoided entirely, since it is not possible to do economic thinking without an understanding of some of the terms which economists use.)

The main text used is Charles Wheelan's Naked Economics (bibliographical information is at the end of this document). It is an introduction to economics intended for the general reader. A number of similar books have been published in the past couple of decades; I reviewed several of them in preparation for teaching this course. I selected Wheelan's book for the clarity of the writing and its accessibility to high school seniors.


By the end of the course, students will be familiar with how economists think about social issues, and they will be able to do such thinking themselves. More specifically, students will understand basic micro- and macroeconomic concepts and will know the terms which economists use in their descriptions and analyses of economic phenonema.


1. The Power of Markets ("Who feeds Paris?")
Why do free market economies tend to work better than planned economies?
2. Incentives Matter ("Why you might be able to save your face by cutting off your nose--if you are a black rhinoceros")
Micro- and macroeconomies work best when incentives are properly aligned with outcomes.
3. Government and the Economy I ("Government is your friend--and a round of applause for all those trial lawyers")
Economies cannot function well without effective governmental institutions.
4. Government and the Economy II ("The army was lucky to get that screwdriver for $500")
How much—and in what ways--should the government intervene in the functioning of the economy?
5. Economics of Information ("McDonald's didn't create a better hamburger")
What we don't know can hurt us.
6. Productivity and Human Capital ("Why is Bill Gates so much richer than you are?")
Human capital--the sum total of skills embodied within an individual--is the most significant kind of capital in a modern economy.
7. Financial Markets ("What economists can tell us about getting rich quick--and losing weight, too!")
A basic understanding of markets can tell us a lot about personal investing.
8. The Power of Organized Interests ("What economists can tell us about politics")
Sound economic policies often run into a brick wall of political opposition.
9. Keeping Score ("Is my economy bigger than your economy?")
What GDP (gross domestic product) measures--and what it doesn't.
10. The Federal Reserve ("Why that dollar in your pocket is more than just a piece of paper")
The Fed controls the money supply and therefore the credit tap for the economy.
11. Trade and Globalization ("The good news about Asian sweatshops")
Trade makes us richer, but it creates winners and losers.
12. Development Economics ("The wealth and poverty of nations")
We explore why some countries are so rich and others so poor.


1. Students will be able to make sense of newspaper and magazine articles about business and economics.
2. Students will understand references to economic concepts in classes such as history and psychology.
3. Students will understand and be able to participate thoughtfully in debates over such issues as progressive and regressive taxation, school vouchers, trade liberalization, immigration, the minimum wage, and drug prohibition.
4. Students will have a great head start if they choose to study economics in college.


Each student will research an economic issue of interest to them. They will present the results of their research in both an oral presentation to the class and a four to six page paper.


Student performance is evaluated almost entirely through testing. Tests are given at the end of each of the units listed above. The emphasis on the tests is on getting students to articulate what they know in a comprehensible fashion. For that reason, the tests consist almost entirely of essay questions. While multiple choice and true-false tests can indeed tell a teacher something about how well a student understands the course material, they do not give the student the opportunity to articulate what she knows. By relentlessly providing such opportunities on every test, I hope to help the students to become better writers and thinkers.

Primary Text

Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.