Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Teaching with Humor

January 16th, 2018 by Edward Lopez

groucho2Today is the first day of class at WCU. I’m not teaching this semester, and I know that I’ll miss it in some ways even though I will make good use of the time off.

Recently I was asked to submit a file for the Liberal Studies Teaching Award. The LS program is the core of WCU’s curriculum. There is a list of classes across most of the disciplines on campus (although it’s heavy on humanities). And there’s a faculty committee separate from the regular curriculum committees that oversees the program. I teach two LS courses a semester, including my upper-level Ethics of Capitalism class.

The application for the LS teaching award is intricate (max 50 pages!). Among its many sections, one asks for an “Explanation of best practices for teaching LS courses”. I dutifully wrote a couple of pages, with sub-headings like “Structured Assignments” and “Balance of Material” and “Experiential Learning”. But honestly, even though the process of writing the application gave me some genuine opportunities to reflect on my teaching in ways that I might not otherwise, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was writing what they wanted to hear. So I kept editing and re-writing, making sure I could stand by it all. At the end of the section, I added this as my final “best practice”.

“Humor: On the wall in my campus office hangs a framed black-and-white photo of Groucho Marx, grinning with a cigar in his mouth and an upside down derby on his head. This is a reminder not to take myself (or economics) too seriously. While I may not be the funniest professor on campus, I do try to mix things up in class. I show funny video clips that help unpack dense material. I crack corny jokes and show pictures of my kids goofing off. I even perform tricks, like juggling tennis balls, to illustrate certain concepts (Adam Smith in his 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations talks about an “elaborate juggling trick”). I use humor partly for my own sanity, but students seem to appreciate it as well. God help us—or at least the ghost of Groucho Marx—if we cannot have fun while learning in the LS Program.”

Here’s to all my friends and colleagues at WCU, and all my students, hoping that you have an awesome semester. Let’s get the job done. And let’s keep it real with some humor along the way.

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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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