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An article was published in The Australian yesterday entitled Dismal science of economics faces dilemma. This will come as no surprise to anyone and the piece might easily have been published 30 odd years ago. Indeed, if economics courses were priced on the free market, you probably couldn’t give them away. That there are any economics courses in universities at all can be attributed to the fact the discipline remains a compulsory core component of many business degrees. Its inclusion keeps aging academic economists in work (although many would probably rather be somewhere else than in front of 400 disengaged first year undergrads), and then there is the sense that there might just be something useful in the study of economics, despite the fact it is has succeeded in boring students half to death for generations.
The dismal science, as it was first referred to by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century, is just as dismal an experience for economics students in the 21st century, but it need not be. The key — to state the bleeding obvious — is to make economics interesting, and to do this, it must be useful. The fact is, the dismal experience of learning economics is only matched by the dismal performance of economics as a science. The latest global economic crisis has focused the mind on this issue, but many commentators continue to view the crisis in economics too narrowly. It is not just about greedy financiers wreaking havoc. The problem is broader and deeper, and about the very survival of life on this planet. The field of vision of economics needs to be expanded and integral to a new approach is the analysis of the impact economic activity has on community and the environment. In the Australian article, Joshua Gans is reported to have said that he rejects the idea that an emphasis on the environment is either new or outside the scope of conventional economics. If this is the case, I’d like to know which university in Australia currently offers a first year economics course which does what he claims because I bet it would interesting economics, that students can relate to, see the point of, and readily apply in their lives.