The first day of class is always nerve-racking. You can typically tell within the first few minutes how the rest of the semester will go. If the professor cracks some jokes, hands out the syllabus, and lets you out early, then you’ll probably be in for a good next few months. Other times, your worst fears come true when the professor hands out the syllabus and then proceeds to lecture for the remaining two and a half hours. Last semester, I walked into a new class to find my professor (who, for the sake of my future academic survival will remain unnamed) lecturing on something I had never heard before. With a bachelors in economics under my belt, I pride myself on generally keeping up with the economics lingo, but this was beyond anything I’d ever heard before. I looked around at my classmates and saw the same deer-in-headlights look I had. We sat there for the next three hours, frantically taking notes and having no idea what we were writing down. Finally, the class period ended. We walked out of the class, empathizing with each other in our inability to understand anything, and headed for the nearest bar. Thanks to our professor’s excessive use of jargon and inability to give context, my classmates and I felt completely lost for the entire semester. I sincerely hope you have never had this experience, but hearing from others, it seems that my professor is not the only one who fails to speak clearly.
There does exist an economist who teaches using clear, plain English. His name is Thomas Sowell and today is his birthday!
An American economist who studied at the University of Chicago, Sowell was one of the best communicators of free market economics in this century. His clear presentation of basic economic principles has helped economists and non-economists alike. He has spent the majority of his career explaining economics in a way that is readable and accessible to all. He doesn’t collapse into jargon to explain complex ideas, even though it takes less effort. He uses everyday language to teach economics to the everyman. The work he is most known for is Basic Economics. A thick, but accessible book, it touches on fundamental economic issues including Prices and Markets, Industry and Commerce, Work and Pay, Time and Risk, and the National and International Economy.
Sowell communicated these principles to both scholars and students. He wasn’t interested in using his Ph.D. to advance the study through an obscure theory. He wanted to take the basics, the fundamentals, the rudimentary beliefs of economics and teach them to the masses. He realized the importance of understanding the basics of economics when he interned for the federal government during the summer of 1960. After seeing the problems of concentrated power firsthand, he rejected his Marxist beliefs and embraced classical liberalism.
One of the areas Sowell clearly defined using plain English was the definition of economics. Sowell dispelled the myth that the study is only about money and finances. He wrote that economics is a study of the economy, a system for production and distribution of goods and services. In the process of production and distribution, scarce resources are used. He highlighted the scarcity of resources particularly because knowing the alternative uses is essential to choose the best option. Every resource, whether physical capital like steel or human capital like a master’s degree, has a next best alternative.
“Economics is a study of consequences of various ways of allocating scarce resources which have alternative uses.” -Thomas Sowell
Sowell focuses on scarcity because it is the reason we study economics. We cannot have everything. We have to make choices between options (some equally good). All choices have consequences. Another aspect of the definition is the decisions of individuals and institutions and how they affect the material standing of society. Economics uses material standing as the way to evaluate whether people are flourishing and prospering. Some think economists should broaden their analysis to non-material measures. However, Sowell wrote that the material offers insight into an individual’s overall well-being and can be a good measure as any to evaluate decisions.
Economics matters, not just for the academics or scholars, but for everyone. Sowell made economics relevant by breaking down complex concepts in basic English. He effectively communicated economic principles to explain real-life problems and provide potential solutions.
I wish my professor had used Sowell’s clear language in my class. It was quite evident I (and the rest of my class) had little idea what was going on because during one of our exams, he tweeted that he had written what he thought was an ingenious question only to find out that none of his students got it right.
He must have felt some responsibility because he curved that exam.
Happy birthday to one of the most effective communicators of free markets and individual prosperity. Here’s to many more years of using clear, basic language to spread the love and knowledge of economic principles. May you be an inspiration to all the obfuscating professors spread across American campuses.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Sowell!