No lemons and a distaste for maths

Economics. Fifth Edition - Economics. Third Edition - Economics. First Edition - Principles of Economics. Ninth Edition - Introduction to Economics. First Edition
May 28, 1999

The benchmark for introductory economics texts has for a number of years been the venerable Positive Economics , originally published in 1963 by Richard Lipsey. This has now metamorphosed, with the help of Alec Chrystal, into Principles of Economics (LC). One wonders if economics will ever again be positive. This change of identity is justified by some chapter shuffling and some revisions in the face of recent historical events, namely the economics of transition and the Asian crisis. But some of the new issues in macroeconomics, in particular the arguments for and against European monetary union, are not really considered. The suspicion naturally arises that the revisions from the eighth and previous editions are cosmetic, but it is not justified. The book is unique among the texts in giving a glossary - popular among students who want accessible and concise definitions of unfamiliar terms.

The objective of four of these texts is a systematic blanket coverage of first-year undergraduate-level economics. Stephen Dobson and Susan Palfreman's Introduction to Economics (DP) is set at a lower technical level than the others and consequently it is difficult to compare it directly. It avoids those topics undergraduates find most difficult conceptually, namely indifferent curve analysis and derivation of the IS-LM model in macro-economics. The chapters are concise, the mathematical content is almost zero and diagrams are liberally used to illustrate the material. Further reading is suggested at the end of each chapter, in particular from LC and John Sloman's Economics (JS). Its target audience is different from that of the other four, being those who have not studied economics before. Despite DP's minimal ambition the text is extremely readable, using up-to-the-minute examples such as Sky's bidding for football coverage rights and health-care reform. The inevitable drawback to the lack of formal presentation is that some of the analysis seems a bit ad hoc. I nevertheless recommend DP as a supplementary text to economics majors in conjunction with one of the other texts or as a main text in introductory courses.

The book that is most extensive in its coverage is Economics by Karl Case, Ray Fair, Manfred Gartner and Ken Heather (CFGH). This evolved out of the US-based Principles of Economics (PrenticeHall) by two of the authors. However, care has been taken to ensure a European approach; the entirety of chapter three is devoted to emphasising just this, and via descriptions of the European Central Bank and the Maastricht treaty are provided later on. Technically the book is hard to fault. Theory is elucidated by practical example as a constituent part of the main text and through "applications" boxes. The maths, as is now fashionable, is relegated to appendices when it is considered unavoidable, which will endear the book to new students. As a new text it has more freedom to tackle contemporary economic issues - and as with LC, two chapters are devoted to economic growth - in general and in the specific case of developing countries, which is both commendable and of interest.

The core first-year text used at my university is Economics by David Begg, Stanley Fischer and Rudiger Dornbusch (BFD). The format follows the tried-and-tested progression, from introduction to micro, macro, and global issues, as do all of the texts reviewed, but it differs slightly in style. The technical level is slightly less than that in LC and CFGH and makes the least use of calculus of the three books. This could be argued to be a weakness but is compensated by clear writing and presentation. My students have found the workbook to be useful and have enjoyed the independence the book gives them.

The prettiest of the five is JS. It is also marginally the all-round winner, although a little long. It is the only book that deems the IS-LM-BP model worthy of inclusion, which in my view should be the starting point for serious analysis of open-economy macro-economics, an objective for first-year undergraduate economics. The issue of Emu is dealt with in the same chapter which is indicative of an admirable interplay of theory and practice. The difficult areas are helpfully denoted by asterisks and the dreaded mathematics is kept to a minimum.

Two of the five books, BFD and JS, have accompanying workbooks/study guides. These aids are increasingly valuable as "contact time" is reduced, and student demand for worked examples increases. (These guides should certainly be considered when choosing the course text.) In particular, while DP does not suffer from the absence of these aids because of its different objectives, LC and CFGH do. The case against CFGH is somewhat mitigated by the presence of a limited number of in-text problems with solutions at the end.

Two trends can be observed in these textbooks. First, the consensus seems to be that size is everything and that to include a "new" topic is preferable to excluding it. Second, the fashion seems to be that ten pages of text are always preferable to two pages of maths. There may in some instances be good reasons for this, but in my experience it merely defers, and in some instances exacerbates, the "mathematical shock" students get in the second year, by which time it may be too late. There must also be some point at which diminishing returns from increasing word length set in: and this author defies any undergraduate (or Nobel prizewinner for that matter) to read any of the four larger texts from cover to cover and remain conscious.

Nevertheless, given the increasing modularity of degree courses, these trends may be necessary and in this context, all of the four large texts provide extensive support material for tutors, while DP is a worthwhile and up-to-date introductory text. There are certainly no lemons here.

Andrew Pickering is teaching assistant, School of Business and Economics, University of Exeter.

Economics. Fifth Edition

Author - David Begg, Stanley Fischer and Rudiger Dornbusch
ISBN - 0 07 709412 3
Publisher - McGraw-Hill
Price - £21.99
Pages - 634

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