Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Engaging Students Through Op-Ed Writing Assignments

June 30th, 2014 by Todd Nesbit

As much as I and many other economists at teaching institutions take pride is having former undergraduate students go on to earn their PhD in economics and enjoy the “family” photos at professional conferences, the vast majority of students with which we interact will go on to pursue other professions.  This certainly suggests that we academic economists should not evaluate our success purely–or even mostly–as a function of students who go on to earn their PhDs.  For the vast majority of our students, I view my role as an economic educator as one who better prepares my students as better informed and more engaged citizens.  Public Choice theory suggests that voters will generally be either uninformed (Downs) or desire to be “fooled” into holding what would otherwise be considered an irrational position (Caplan: herehere, and here).  The academic economist’s role is to make them aware of these possibilities and then to get them to think critically about who stands to benefit at whose cost from the passage of any new policy such that the individual may make a more well-informed decision concerning the policy.

I have found that no other assignment with with I have experimented has done more to help my students develop these critical thinking skills and become engaged in policy matters more than my op-ed assignments.  Josh Hall and Marta Podemska-Mikluch hold a similar position:

After experimenting with a variety of different assignments, we have learned that requiring students to write an op-ed is a very good way of motivating them to internalize the economic way of thinking. In the remainder of this article we discuss our op-ed approach and the reasons why we believe assigning it has been an effective use 0f classroom, student, and instructor time. As a preview, however, there are four major reasons behind the effectiveness of our approach. First, op-eds are short and therefore easily manageable for the instructor who wants to assign writing in her classroom. Second, given that students are free to work on any topic of their choosing, an op-ed assignment takes advantage of the passions and hobbies students had prior to taking the course. Third, writing an op-ed provides students with an opportunity to experience the usefulness of the economic way of thinking firsthand. Fourth, writing an op-ed prepares the students to be active members of civil society.

Op-ed assignments do more than just prepare students for participation in the political process, though.  While students are usually asked to write a paper of some given page length, say 10, 12, or 15 pages, the op-ed is only typically 500 – 600 words (1.5 pages).  Whereas the standard long writing assignment trains students to write as little content in as many pages as possible, the op-ed encourages them to write effective and concise arguments, writing which is surely more similar to what they will be expected to produce in the future.  Thus, even if a student does not intend to be political involved as a citizen, they still can benefit professionally from the op-ed assignment.

The basics for the op-ed assignment can be found in my syllabus found here.  While I am still continuing to modify my grading rubric (feel free to contact me if interested in the most recent version), I offer the following advice for those writing op-eds:

The standard op-ed should be restricted to between 500 – 600 words, although the maximum lengths do vary by outlet, and authors should confirm in advance.  Most op-eds follow a structure similar to the following:

Lede: This is the introduction section of your op-ed; it is intended to entice the reader into reading the full story. It is normally the first one or two paragraphs, 3 – 6 sentences in length. It tells the reader the “who, what, when, where” of your topic.

Conclusion: This is the “why” or “why care” part of your op-ed. Yes, the conclusion may seem out of place based on writing approaches you have used for other assignments, but you do need to bring the conclusion more to the front for op-eds. It is normally 1 – 2 paragraphs, 2 – 5 sentences in length. In many cases, authors will use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize a particular aspect of the conclusion to ensure that the reader gives the idea more attention.

Evidence: This is normally 3 – 6 paragraphs in length. The paragraphs, while still short compared to more standard writing styles, are often a bit longer than those from the Lede and Conclusion. This is because you are discussing examples and presenting expert statements that support your Conclusion. Concentrate on policies rather than people. There will be some educational aspect to your presentation; however, be sure to live by the “show, don’t tell” mantra.  Also, translate statistics into grounded numbers that can be easily digested by your reader. Avoid using jargon, but if you must use jargon, pause to quickly define—in two short sentences or less—the term and get back to your argument.

Walk-off: This is where you explain how to go forward. All op-eds should be forward-looking. That is, don’t just explain that there is some problem to which we should find a solution. Offer a possible solution. This is normally 1 – 3 paragraphs, 3 – 6 sentences in length.

In addition to grading the op-eds as a standard assignment for class, students are also incentivized to send their articles out for publication.  Should a student publish their op-ed in a newspaper prior to when I submit final grades for the semester, the student receives a 1 percentage point increase in their grade.  This incentive structure has been relatively successful in that my students had ten op-eds published during the 2013 – 2014 academic year; all ten can be found here.  While I do not agree with the argument presented in all of these student publications, the structure of the arguments has been my emphasis (this is also where the rubric comes in handy).

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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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