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    The Faculty Recommends

Compiled By Kolleen Rask & Nick Sanchez

Nick SanchezMembers of the economics department encompass a wide variety of interests and views. What follows is an eclectic mix of books, trips, and activities that we have enjoyed, and which just might get others thinking about how economics relates to the world in which we live.     

The Blackstone River and the Canal Heritage State Park, both located in Uxbridge, Mass., are part of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor that runs from Worcester to Providence. The canal figures prominently in Worcester's economic history by significantly shortening the travel time to a major seaport and opening world markets to the large number of textile and metalworking mills along the river. This advance marked the blossoming of Worcester from a small farming community to a major industrial center.

To learn more about local economic history, we highly recommend the Worcester Historical Museum. The museum, located at 30 Elm St., is currently running an exhibit on the industrial history of Worcester. This is a city that can boast such accomplishments as the birthplace of barbed wire and the monkey wrench and the production of everything from woolens to roller skates. 

For a realistic view of economic life before the industrial revolution took hold, a trip to historic Sturbridge Village provides a wonderful outing for the whole family. The idyllic setting and quaint buildings that we see on the surface gradually give way to an understanding of how difficult life really was for ordinary people. For children who are born into a world of climate-controlled vehicles which quickly ferry them between distant climate-controlled buildings, the lack of such control over nature is startling. On the other hand, the connection to nature in this pre-industrial society is pervasive. Changing seasons carry a far greater importance. Successfully preparing for the long winter is literally a matter of life and death. Wasting resources, whether food, fuel, or raw materials, can have disastrous and immediate consequences. Understanding the cycles of crops and animals is critical. Compare the human effort involved in preparing the ground, growing the crops, and hand-processing the food to our quick trips to the grocery store, the use of food processors, and electric or gas ovens.

Another outing with economic significance is a stroll around the Boston Common. In earlier days, the Common was a public area in which all residents could graze their cattle. This free grazing resource rapidly deteriorated in value, as cattle owners allowed their cattle to overgraze the Common. "The tragedy of the commons" has come to symbolize the overuse of any free resource, leading to the expansion of the use of private property with individual responsibility for its upkeep.

As long as you are in Boston, stop by the Boston Federal Reserve building. The building itself is impressive, in its own metallic way, and the tours are very interesting. One of the most amazing things for children to see is the shredding of huge piles of old currency. You can even pick up a bag of it to take home.

Do we finally have the federal budget deficit under control? What impact will that have on our national debt? Why should we care? Steele Gordon's book Hamilton's Blessing describes the extraordinary life and times of our national debt. It provides an interesting and non-technical look at the important role our debt has played in U.S. history. This is an accessible way to increase your understanding of a major economic issue.

We also recommend The Armchair Economist, by Steven E. Landsburg, which delves into economic issues in everyday life. Why do rock concerts sell out long in advance? (In economic terms, why is it that promoters do not set a market clearing price?) What is the theory behind product endorsements by celebrities? Why does the business world reward good dressers? Under what circumstances should people be rewarded even when we know that they are going to make bad mistakes? Why do we have too much partisanship in politics? These and other questions are explored in this readable book which will get you thinking about the world around you.

A wonderful way to understand the evolution of economic thinking is by reading Robert Heilbroner's classic and fascinating book The Worldly Philosophers. The early chapters are especially enlightening for those of us who were taught that "if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." The fear of innovation in centuries past was so deeply ingrained that laws against change were passed and thousands of people were hung, tortured, and sent to the galleys for daring to try something new. When tailors began producing buttons out of cloth, not only were fines imposed on the offending tailors, but out of respect for the traditional button-makers, people's homes and wardrobes were searched for "these subversive goods," resulting in further fines and arrests. While these measures seem Draconian today, echoes of such sentiments can still be heard.

On a lighter note, there are several murder mysteries that sneak in a bit of economic reasoning as the reader sifts through clues to solve the crime. The old favorite Murder at the Margin has been superseded by The Fatal Equilibrium, ostensibly written by a man named Marshall Jevons (economists get that joke), and it highlights microeconomic tools, while In the Long Run We Are All Dead, by Murray Wolfson and Vincent Buranelli focuses on macroeconomic principles. The latter takes its title from J.M. Keynes' admonition to those who dismiss current economic ills by asserting that the economy always straightens itself out in the long run. While that may be true, said Keynes, "in the long run we are all dead." 

For those wishing to find up-to-the-minute economic information, try these Web sites: 

White House Economic Statistics Briefing Room 
http://www.whitehouse.gov/fsbr/esbr.html 
for current economic data 
contains links to the agencies that provide the data 

Current economic conditions page from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
http://www.ny.frb.org

provides a variety of economic indicators 

WebEc - Worldwide Web Resources in Economics 
http://www.helsinki.fi/WebEc
includes technical material, but also offers many subcategories of information that might be of interest to the general reader 

There is also an economic search engine at www.inomics.com which will point you to whatever data you may wish to retrieve, including information about past Nobel prize winners in the field of economics. You can even cast your vote (although it may not count in Sweden!) for the next Nobel prize winner. 

 

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