Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Engaging Students with Madmen

June 27th, 2014 by Todd Nesbit

As someone who has used Leighton and Lopez’s Madmen in multiple sections of a course and for two years, my experiences may be useful for many instructors who are contemplating incorporating Madmen in their courses or for those looking for new ideas in the use of the book.   I’d also be interested to learn of others’ methods of incorporating the book, and I encourage comments in that regard.

In short, I have been pleased with the addition of Madmen to my current economic issues course, a discussion-based and writing intensive course with a focus on formulating arguments.  The syllabus from Spring 2014 can be found here.  I have found Madmen to be most useful for my students in helping them to structure arguments concerning political change.  Having a better grasp of how policies come about, how they become entrenched, and how they are repealed or changed has improved the argument structure of many of the submissions, particularly their op-ed submissions. (I will discuss my op-ed assignments in a future blog post this weekend.)

Initially, I spread the required reading from Madmen over the first seven weeks of the semester.  Unfortunately, this meant that we covered five weeks of policy topics before covering the full formulation of Leighton and Lopez’s hour-glass structure describing the process of political change.  Not only was this somewhat of a disservice to the discussions of those early policy topics, but also the first op-ed and other written submissions suffered from a lack of structured and effective argument.  I now cover Madmen in four weeks, reducing the length of other readings during those weeks.

Engaging students in Chapter 2:

Chapter 2 of Madmen presented a bit of a hurdle for many of our students.  “The Never-Ending Quest for Good Government” is incredibly well-written–I have not come across a more concise summary of the history of thought in political philosophy and the battle of these ideas.  However, as I suspect is the case of many students at most institutions, our students have generally not been previously challenged to become particularly well-read in philosophy or history (and many avoid philosophical reading as much as possible).  As such, my students initially struggled to lead a discussion based on this chapter; while they generally found it interesting, they struggled with the take-away.

In response to this, I issued a homework assignment to create a crossword using any free on-line generator (there are many options).  I provided a list of fifteen political philosophers discussed in the chapter and they were required to develop a clue for each that uniquely describes each individual.  The list of the fifteen political philosophers can be found at the end of this post.  My students led the discussion in the next class–despite my initial intention to move on to other material–back to the Chapter 2 material, a sign to me of the effectiveness of the assignment in engaging the students in the ideas of these great historical philosophers.

Having learned from that experience, I developed my own crossword that I provide as a take-home quiz due the day we are scheduled to discuss the chapter.  This crossword can be found here.  While assigning my own crossword is easier to grade, I did find that it did not engage the students quite as much as when my students were asked to develop their own crossword clues, still necessitating me to direct the discussion more than I think ideal.  My possible next approach: provide a completed crossword but without the clues and require the students to develop the clues.

15 Philosophers included in my crossword list:

Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Bacon, Descartes, Cicero, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Marx, Montesquieu, Plato, Rousseau, Smith, Vitoria

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

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The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers

The Economic Engine of Political Change

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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