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Review of Economics in Two Lessons

Summary:
Here’s a review of Economics in Two Lessons, by Nikki Dumbrell in the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. It’s the first in an academic journal, and captures all the main points nicely. Free market economics (or ‘One Lesson Economics’, Hazlitt 1946) refers to the idea that markets, left alone with very minimal intervention, will achieve equilibrium and as such allocate resources to their most valued use. This idea is persistent. Indeed, famous schools of economic thought (and individuals’ careers) are built on this idea. Economics in Two Lessons, by Professor John Quiggin (Distinguished Fellow of the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society) recognises the importance of One Lesson economics but challenges the completeness of this way of

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Here’s a review of Economics in Two Lessons, by Nikki Dumbrell in the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. It’s the first in an academic journal, and captures all the main points nicely.

Free market economics (or ‘One Lesson Economics’, Hazlitt 1946) refers to the idea that markets, left alone with very minimal intervention, will achieve equilibrium and as such allocate resources to their most valued use. This idea is persistent. Indeed, famous schools of economic thought (and individuals’ careers) are built on this idea. Economics in Two Lessons, by Professor John Quiggin (Distinguished Fellow of the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society) recognises the importance of One Lesson economics but challenges the completeness of this way of thinking. He draws readers’ attention to where and how markets might be imperfect or might not exist and asks readers to consider how One Lesson economics might perform in these scenarios. The short answer is ‘poorly‘.

To tease out the shortfall of One Lesson economics and the importance of Two Lesson economics, the central theme of the book is opportunity costs. ‘The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you have to give up in order to get it‘ (p.3). The book is divided into two parts: Lesson One and Lesson Two. Each part includes an introduction to the lesson and subsequent chapters with examples. Quiggin summarises Lesson One as ‘market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers’ (p.7). Lesson Two follows and broadens the scope from consumers and producers to society, ‘market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society’ (p.8). In addition, Lesson Two extends the definition of opportunity costs to say that the opportunity cost of something of value (to you) includes not only what you must give up, but what others must give up as well.

The 70 years between the publication of Hazlitt’s (1946) book and this book has provided a number of real‐world examples for Quiggin to debate the value of One Lesson and Two Lesson economics in a critical analysis of market mechanisms and economic policy. For example, Quiggin draws on the Great Moderation, the Global Financial Crisis, increasing inequality, episodes of mass unemployment (for which most examples are accompanied by empirical evidence from the United States), and multiple forms of pollution such as chlorofluorocarbons linked to ozone depletion and climate change. The book balances this evidence of market failures with history of economic thought to deliver a well‐rounded understanding of the key differences between Lesson One and Lesson Two. It is important to note that the above‐listed examples relate to both microeconomic and macroeconomic issues. Quiggin points out that ‘in standard economics courses, analysis of opportunity costs, and market failure is typically confined to courses on microeconomics. This is a mistake. Lesson Two tells us that market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society’ (p.152). Lesson Two also emphasises the importance of the opportunity costs of government choices, not just consumer and producer choices.

While opportunity costs are a foundation concept of economics, and an important instrument for Quiggin to illustrate how and why free markets can both succeed and fail, he also shows that it remains a concept difficult to grasp for many economists. For example, a survey of 200 delegates at the 2005 American Economic Association Annual Meeting (Ferraro and Taylor, 2005), drawn on by Quiggin, showed that only 22 per cent were able to correctly identify the opportunity cost of a decision in a hypothetical scenario. The clarity with which Quiggin writes on opportunity costs appears timely.

Another important contribution of this book is to remind readers that markets operate in a social environment. For example, property rights (that form the basis of trade in a market) are a social construct. Therefore, society and governments (not just consumers and producers) are intrinsically involved in the establishment and operation of markets. To forget or ignore this, as is often done by advocates of the free market, is detrimental.

This book has something to offer all new and long‐time students and practitioners of economics. Firstly, Quiggin’s ability to distil jargon and illustrate what can be complex concepts with real‐world examples makes this book accessible and thought‐provoking for all, regardless of any prior economic experience. Secondly, Quiggin recommends much relevant (often seminal) further reading for anyone who wishes to use this book as a launching pad to further discovery. Thirdly, as the earlier example from the 2005 American Economic Association Meeting indicated, many in the profession could use the clarity of economic thought that Quiggin offers. Ultimately, the book provides a framework to think about: (i) the challenges that arise when markets are missing or imperfect; (ii) the role for both market forces and government policy in response to economic problems; and (iii) the consequences (positive and negative) of different responses to economic problems. As we continue to face numerous complex economic problems, I hope to see this book and the ideas within it attract much attention.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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