Eye-catching deviants

Microeconomics - Microeconomics - Microeconomics - Microeconomic Theory

May 31, 2002

Intermediate microeconomics must be one of the most settled bodies of thought in the social sciences. This is reflected by the fact that these books cover, by and large, the same material presented in roughly the same order. The archetypal format is: an introduction followed by consumer theory, production and firms, and factor markets, concluding with general equilibrium and welfare economics issues.

Deviation from this format is found in the book by Susan Himmelweit et al , which is composed for the Open University by a group of heterodox economists. Nevertheless, it still contains a largely neoclassical presentation within the chapters, although the supplementary reading at the chapter ends is overwhelmingly of material from well outside mainstream economics. This is also the only book in which chapters are attributed to different authors and the authors of individual chapters are not identified until one turns to the chapters themselves.

It follows that, in a crowded market, textbook writers face a degree of difficulty in differentiating their products. What separates these volumes is their attempts to be vibrant and exciting for the reader and their assistance in terms of supplements such as exercises, websites, CD-Roms and so on.

Edgar Browning and Mark Zupan go furthest in the direction of brightness. Their cover is, like the others, an abstract design vaguely suggestive of some technical/scientific knowledge within the tome. The letter "e" is raised up in font size in "Microeconomics" and "edition", as if seeking to appeal to people for whom e-mail is a more dominant feature of their daily lives than the old-style paper book.

Each chapter begins with a striking picture that does not always have any obvious link to the content. The authors opt for a fairly non-technical exposition, demonstrating most points with a few diagrams. Each chapter teems with examples chosen to appeal to students. But there is also the unusual feature of every fifth chapter being entirely applications. As game theory does not appear until quite late in this book, the chance to apply it in these illustrations is much less than perhaps it should have been.

Besides introducing game theory earlier, Walter Nicholson's book contrasts with Browning and Zupan's in starker ways. It is quite a lot longer and gives a more rigorous treatment, with full mathematical derivation of most propositions. In terms of running order, Nicholson's main departure from the norm is to present the more advanced material - risk and uncertainty, information and game theory - between the consumer choice and production/supply sections. Most books section this off as optional or advanced; David Besanko and Ronald Braeutigam locate it all at the end of their book, while in Himmelweit et al it appears sporadically in different contexts.

All the texts other than Nicholson's use a student-friendly, lively writing style and bright layouts. Visually, the Besanko and Braeutigam book falls between Nicholson's and Browning and Zupan's, being more like a webpage, with icons and pictures integrated into the text, panels and so forth. The smaller UK market is probably the reason for the more modest style of Himmelweit et al - the only one of these books in paperback. All of the books contain exercises to some degree. The supplied study guide to Besanko and Braeutigam provides a full 561 pages of numerical and graphical problems with solutions.

In an ideal world, students would have ready access to all these books and could mix their consumption of them in the pursuit of an optimal learning strategy. In the real world, however, library budgets are falling, and some students are reluctant to buy even one book; few would buy two at prices like these.

I would propose Besanko and Braeutigam as a main text, and it is a fortunate coincidence that it is the one with the lowest price, £25.95. It balances the needs of the student and instructor. The exposition is clear and correct and the authors are in command of the material. While this is true of all these texts, Besanko and Braeutigam have the advantage of providing a rigorous treatment, along with examples that are not only well linked to the principles but do not suffer from being so narrowly American in focus that they might alienate the European reader. I also like the fact that this book seems to lead the student in the direction of future empirical testing of hypotheses.

The other books would also be good core texts, with the exception of Himmelweit et al . This would, instead, provide a useful stimulant for the more advanced student as its lack of integration and less-focused perspective would be confusing for any student who was poorly motivated.

Samuel Cameron is reader in economics, University of Bradford.

Microeconomics: An Integrated Approach. First edition

Author - David Besanko and Ronald R. Braeutigam
ISBN - 0 471 17064 X
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £25.95
Pages - 809

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