The Joy of Economics:  Making Sense out of Life

Robert J. Stonebraker, Winthrop University

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Section I-A: Scarcity and Choice
Section I-B: How do we Choose
Section I-C: Efficiency and Competition
Section II-A: Love and Marriage
Section II-B: Sickness and Death
Section II-C: Crime
Section II-D: Higher Education
Section II-E: Religion
Section II-F: Shopping
Section II-G: Happiness
Section III-A: GDP
Section III-B: Unemployment and Inflation
Section III-C: Deficits and Debt

     Feel the joy!

          What fun.

          I once worked with a group of high-school students who knew no economics.  They associated it with stock markets and inflation rates, things peripheral to their everyday lives.  They were wrong.  Economics is about choice, all kinds of choice.  We make economic choices about whether to buy ice cream or potato chips.  We also make economic choices about love and marriage, about life and death, about crime and punishment, even about faith.

          I taught a few simple economic tools and used them to explain how I murdered people while vacationing at the Grand Canyon, why some co-eds can be coerced into granting sexual favors they would prefer not to grant, and why more husbands are doing laundry these days.   The next morning a student came to me wide-eyed and exclaimed, "I keep thinking about what we did yesterday.  Everything we do is really economics, isn't it?"  It is.

          My goal is to provide an accessible book that reflects this theme of choice and conveys a sense of the breadth and power of basic economic analysis.  It assumes no prior knowledge of economics and can be read and appreciated by anyone.  While some parts of the book cover conventional material, others do not.  I've ignored many traditional topics and substituted ones that apply economics in unusual and often provocative ways.  The chapters are not meant to be definitive, they are meant to raise questions. If they do not make you think or ruffle an occasional feather, I have failed.

          Most chapters use a story-telling approach that has served me well in the classroom.  I am accustomed to a tough audience.  Every semester I stare into the fresh faces of college students who would rather be at the beach, students who challenge me to make them care.  I use stories to grab their attention, to show how economics affects their everyday life, and to give them a new and deeper appreciation of what drives their behavior.  

The design of the book

         The book is divided into three sections.  The first takes a traditional, though non-technical, approach to develop such core economic concepts as comparative advantage, demand and supply, and economic efficiency.  The second section applies these concepts to a wide range of microeconomic issues and the third section tackles macroeconomic issues.  These last sections, especially the microeconomic one, are less traditional.  Rather than than trying to explain economics, their emphasis is on using economics to explain everyday phenomena. The recurring theme is that differences in behavior across individuals and/or across time are the result of differences in perceived costs and benefits.  To understand behavior, both good and bad, we must uncover the underlying costs and benefits that create it.

          The chapters are very short.  Short chapters and books are easier to write; they are also easier to read.  My best reading is at the breakfast table, after downing my egg sandwich, but before heading to the shower.  It is about fifteen minutes.  My writing strategy was simple: create readings that can be consumed in ten to fifteen uninterrupted minutes.  Time is scarce.  If I cannot find more than ten or fifteen uninterrupted minutes at a time, most of you cannot either.

           The economic theory underlying this book comes from many sources. Gary Becker pioneered much of the material on the economics of marriage and the economics of crime.   Larry Iannaccone's path-breaking work on the economics of religion is reflected in several chapters.  I also have borrowed heavily from the insights of George Akerlof, Bob Frank, Tom Schelling, Tibor Scitovsky and Gordon Tullock.  These may not be household names to general readers, but they are to professional economists and I owe them a great debt. 

           I also owe a debt to the thousands of students who have served as unwitting guinea pigs for my off-beat approach.  Their feedback and encouragement have been a critical component of this venture. Many passed my essays along to their non-economist friends and encouraged me to write more.  One even exclaimed that he caught his twelve-year-old daughter laughing aloud while reading my work. 

 Note to potential instructors:

          Permission to reproduce or copy all or parts of this material for non-profit use is granted on the condition that the author and source are credited.  Instructors interested in using all or parts of this book for their classes are free to do so as long as appropriate citations are made, including a reference to this website. 

          This material can be used successfully as the basic text for introductory economics courses with an applications or issues emphasis, and individual chapters or sections can be used as supplementary reading in other courses.  

          The chapters are self-contained.  Although the concepts in the first section are critical for students in their first economics course, the rest of the chapters can be read (or skipped) in any order.  Instructors adapting this material for their courses can pick and choose any combination of chapters without loss of continuity.  

          The book will be updated and modified on an ongoing basis.   Suggestions and comments are welcomed.

           Read on.  Feel the joy.


Robert J. Stonebraker
Winthrop University

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Last modified 07/05/05