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Text vs. Text vs. Text

August 26, 2005

Two economics heavyweights are introducing new textbooks into the intro-to-econ fray.

Paul Krugman, a Princeton University economics professor  and New York Times columnist, and Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia University business school, hope the market will be kind to their books, both of which are getting their first real use in this new academic year.

The introductory economics textbook business can be a lucrative one. Principles of Economics, by N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard professor, brought an advance of $1.4 million in 1997, and has since become common shelf material in college bookstores.

Several other intro texts have made professors rich. The new books, for which only microeconomics portions have been unveiled so far, are from authors on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Krugman is famous for his anti-Bush tirades in The New York Times, while Hubbard was on the Bush administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, helping to engineer tax cuts. For the most part, though, the content of their books may not be startlingly different from each other, or from the books already out there.

"It’s like adding Pepsi to the shelf with Coca-Cola. You have more choices. You might have Shasta and Canada Dry, too, but it’s mostly more of the same,” said Fred Gottheil, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who teaches intro courses and is the author of his own textbook, Principles of Economics.

The book publishers, however, beg to differ. They say the books are unique, from each other and from other texts on the market. "Each chapter is going to follow a real case of a real business,” said David Hakensen, a spokesman for Prentice Hall, which published Microeconomics, which Hubbard wrote with Anthony P. O’Brien, an economics professor at Lehigh University.

Krugman’s book, Economics, which he wrote with his wife, Robin Wells, also a Princeton professor, “takes a story-driven approach that focuses on real-world economics at work,” according to the Worth Publishers Web site.

Both books will sell in the range of $100, give or take $20 depending on the markup. Hakensen noted that a digital, SafariX version of Hubbard’s text is available. What about the Krugman competitor? “With Aplia, students can use the digital book and professors can give homework online,” said Craig Bleyer, publisher for economics at Worth Publishers.

Some professors don’t think the digital options really break new ground. “I’m on the bloody Internet, on your screen answering questions,” Gottheil said of an option to which book owners can log in for help via video. “What’s Krugman going to do new, tell jokes? Unless he comes on 3-D. Then, OK, he beat me.”

In fact, Krugman did show up in person to the University of Pittsburgh last year, where Shirley Cassing, an economics professor, was promised a visit if she tried using his book during testing last year. “It was so cool. He’s not very dynamic or flamboyant in person,” she said, “but the sheer force of his ideas made it engaging.” Cassing is a fan of Krugman’s book. “We’re all familiar with his writing,” she added. “Even if you don’t share his views, the writing in the book is still really good, and there’s no obvious bias.”

Cassing said the Aplia option allowed her to assign homework that is done online and graded automatically to her 200 students. She credits that for part of improved student performance over the past, when she used Mankiw’s book and homework was essentially optional because all 200 problem sets could not be graded.

Other professors, however, are reticent to use either of the new books, fearing political perspectives may be injected. “[Hubbard and Krugman] both have dogs in the fight,” said Allen Sanderson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Sanderson said he "winced in a couple places" where he detected some bias in Krugman’s book. “Paul doesn’t use minimum wage as one of the traditional examples of restrictions. He would have a hard time doing that and coming back and arguing for higher wages for the unskilled.”

Sanderson said that the major topics of microeconomics are pretty well agreed upon, and that you probably can’t go too wrong with many textbooks. In this case, though, he said he found Hubbard’s real-world examples to be well-written, and engaging. Still, though Hubbard has “a shorter paper trail” than Krugman, Sanderson is not sure he can be objective enough. One thing is for sure: not everyone is as enthralled with all of Krugman’s writing as Cassing. “[Krugman] writes great economics,” Sanderson said, “but when he writes politics he’s just bad.”

Other professors felt it was a fantasy to search for a textbook author with no bias. "All authors have views and values," said Richard Easterlin, an economics professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s better to have them out there explicitly than cloaked in the guise of objectivity.”

Chuen-mei Fan, an economics professor at Colorado State University, has used some of the traditional texts in the past, and said she found that Krugman’s examples were “more alive to students.” For example, a chapter on long-term economic growth opens by talking about “1900 House,” a BBC documentary where a modern middle-class family lives as if it was a middle class family in 1900. The example is used to discuss changes in living standards over time.

While Krugman is the columnist, it’s Hubbard who uses the newspaper in the textbook arena. Chapters in his book include newspaper articles showing how the financial press covered decisions made by real businesses.

Some professors predict that public relations, not content, will determine the success of the two new texts.

Gottheil recalled when Mankiw’s book came out. A PR firm was hired, and the big advance generated buzz. “No one had a PR firm before that,” said Gottheil, who gives his book royalties to a cancer-fighting fund in memory of his son. Gottheil thinks there are a lot of quality texts out there, but that any claims of reaching students on a new level might be exaggerated. “Look at the preface of any book: ‘I wrote this to get to students. I’m not interested in royalties,’ Yeah sure. Everyone says that, including myself.”

Added Sanderson: “As economists, we tend to think the market works. This is probably true with textbooks.”

 

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