If You're Looking To Learn Basic Economics, Here's A Free Textbook

from the cool dept

Against Monopoly points us to an LA Times story about an economics professor from Caltech, R. Preston McAfee, who has written what he calls an “open source” economics textbook. You can download the textbook for free, and can even modify it (he offers up both a pdf version and a “source code” Word doc). It’s not quite “open source” in that you’re not allowed to do anything commercial with it, but it’s certainly a lot cheaper than a standard econ textbook. We get plenty of questions here about where one should start learning about economics knowledge — and while a textbook without a teacher isn’t always the best place, if you did want to dig into a text, this is obviously a good place to start.

I haven’t gone through the whole thing, but a quick spot check on various topics suggests that (at least in that random sample) the text is clear, well-written and does a good job explaining those concepts. And while it doesn’t get into anything beyond your basic intro econ, the guy does seem to recognize the basic economics of information. As he notes in the LA Times article:

“What makes us rich as a society is what we know and what we can do. Anything that stands in the way of the dissemination of knowledge is a real problem.”

And, in the opening itself certainly suggests he understands the whole scarce/infinite goods dichotomy:

Economics studies the allocation of scarce resources among people ? examining what goods and services wind up in the hands of which people. Why scarce resources? Absent scarcity, there is no significant allocation issue.

Indeed. And, it’s nice to see scarcity becoming absent from a good econ text as well, so “allocate” away.

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Comments on “If You're Looking To Learn Basic Economics, Here's A Free Textbook”

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CM - Question says:

(kinda copyright based)

Say I was to write a text book, a chemistry text book, and I wanted to use some figures. If I was to get written permission to use those figures in my text book (kinda easy to do, and most people allow it without a second thought), could I then make ‘my’ textbook, with the included figures which I got permission to use, open source?

Or are their implied stipulations when you go about getting permissions.

I know its someone off-topic, and the answer is probably very complex, but it was something that just occurred to me.

Rob (profile) says:

Ever Expanding Economy

I have to admit that, in 1972, when the professor in my college Econ 101 said, “These economic theories assume an ever-expanding economy”, I stopped listening because it was obvious to me that everything was build on a faulty assumption. (Yes, engineering major:)

As a result I haven’t paid much attention to economics since that time.

Now tell me, in 2008 is this still the basis of economic theory taught in college?

Jake says:

Re: Ever Expanding Economy

I have to admit that, in 1972, when the professor in my college Econ 101 said, “These economic theories assume an ever-expanding economy”… Now tell me, in 2008 is this still the basis of economic theory taught in college?

That would actually explain a lot about the US and British housing markets right now.

TW Burger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Ever Expanding Economy

Yes, this is still the basis of economic theory taught in college.

Wealth is based on an ever expanding debt base through which money is created (banks only put up a small percentage of the loan in real money). The loan goes to pay for an asset of arbitrary value based on demand and the money is then paced in the banking system where it magically becomes an asset of the bank to be used as a basis for borrowing more money from the central bank (Federal Reserve in the US) to loan out.

It’s essentially a giant Ponzi scheme that fails when the economy stalls.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

It's Better to Draw Your Own Pictures Instead.

To: CM, #6

I notice that you say “figures,” rather than “pictures” or “photographs.” You don’t say what kind of figures, but I take it you mean things like molecular diagrams. I would bet that you probably draw such figures on a chalkboard (or maybe a whiteboard) all the time, and don’t think anything about it. You are probably looking for “figures” to use because you have difficulties producing neat enough figures to go in a published work. However, this is fairly easy to learn. It is just one of those skills like website building that you need to know if you are to be your own publisher. The price of freedom, and all that.

I am old enough that I learned to type before I had regular access to a computer, and that I learned to type on a mechanical (electric) typewriter. This was before word processors, of course. The typewriter wasn’t especially convenient to use– I went on writing my first drafts in pencil– but I had to type them because professors did not like reading essays in pencil, and insisted on the point. The same goes for editors, of course. Nowadays, of course, kids simply grow up knowing how to type, and it isn’t an issue.

When I went to engineering school, one of the required first year courses was Mechanical Drawing, where we were taught to use compasses and squares and triangles and french curves and lettering gauges, and whatnot to produce a drawing good enough to be published, using a special extra-black pencil lead that would photocopy well. As the assistant dean of the college who taught the course told us, Mechanical Drawing had been reintroduced by popular demand of the companies which hired engineers. It was like typing for engineers.

Now, of course, there are various CAD/CAM programs, some of which are Free Software. Many of them aren’t really so intuitive that you can use them for just doodling around– they are more comparable to a typewriter than to a word processor. But once you have done some pencil drawings, and worked out what you are going to say, you can use these programs to make a clean copy. Once you learn to use the program properly, you will find that you can draw your own figures faster than you can chase down permissions for other people’s figures. Bear in mind that you are going to be able to reuse bits and pieces of your own figures in the course of a big project like illustrating a textbook, and, in the end, it will leave you free of obligations. If you are not accustomed to using CAD/CAM, I would suggest using GIMP. It is not a CAD/CAM program per se, but it is surprising versatile, and probably easier to learn. It has the essential capabilities such as lettering, drawing straight lines, cutting and pasting between drawings, etc., which will suffice for making textbook figures. You are not going to be drawing construction blueprints, after all. Similarly, GIMP’s filters can be used to reduce a photograph of apparatus to a line drawing, on which you can superimpose labels.

Here is an example of a little illustrative drawing produced with GIMP, a floor plan of a railroad business car:


Kelvin L. Seifert (user link) says:

Lost-cost or free alternatives to high-cost textbooks

There are actually quite a few places on the Internet to find free or very low-cost textbooks, and on many subjects besides economics. A nice list is at http://globaltext.terry.uga.edu/node/16 , but I’m sure that other sources exist as well, as other comments here have indicated. They vary in purpose and quality, just as with paper-printed texts. The variations are less annoying that with printed texts, though, because 1) the cost is so low to begin with, and 2) in many cases (especially with wiki-based texts), books can be edited or revised to suit your local purposes.

A big problem is to devise new ways of supporting the creation and use of free textbooks, both with money and with appropriate recognition for authors’ work. Right now, to a large extent authors must have independent means of support–either draw a salary from some kind of “day job” or else be paid in the form of university credit for the work (as are students). I suspect these problems can be solved, but it will take some cogitating and experimenting.

–Kelvin Seifert

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