The Economics of Economics Textbooks

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of having a meeting with Heather Ross, an instructional design specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, where we discussed open-access textbooks. The meeting came about after a conversation on twitter where I mentioned that I was considering adopting an open-access text for AGRC 113, a course that has a heavy micro-economics base but tends to drift into more practical applications and current issues in the agri-food industry. In the past three years, I have gone through the gauntlet of texts. I started with an agricultural economics text (Drummond and Goodwin), then changed to the more popular microeconomics texts. In years 2 and 3, I used McConnell, Brue, Flynn, and Barbiero and Mankiw, Kneebone and McKenzie. I decided to go away from the agricultural economics texts as 1) I think it helps agricultural students to see the broader picture, and 2) these texts were the ones used by ECON 111, the main prerequisite for my course.

However, not all students take my course immediately after they take ECON 111 (for whatever reason). Therefore they get stung with the pain of selling their text back to the bookstore after ECON 111 only to have to buy a newer version at a higher price point a couple semesters later. The Economist had a recent post that discussed the steep increase in textbook prices (which is in itself an economics lesson in captive markets and inelastic demand). This led me to a search for a better option for these students while also not causing undue financial strain on students who are taking the course in the recommended sequence.

Through BC Open Campus, I was able to review a completely open-access text authored by Timothy Taylor of Macalester College that I think rivals those of McConnell and Mankiw. In terms of economic material, the Taylor text covers the same material as the McConnell and Mankiw texts, while also providing more detailed coverage on information, risk and insurance, and financial markets. These two topics are pretty important in agricultural systems, so I view their inclusion as a real advantage. The chapters give adequate detail of economic concepts while also including text boxes that show how the concepts can be applied to current issues in the world. The Taylor text also provides a variety of self-review questions at the end of each chapter that allows students to see which concepts are clear and which require further study. For instructors, the publisher provides access to all the normal accoutrements (solutions manual, PowerPoint slides, test bank) that other non-open-access texts also provide.

In terms of benefit cost, I think that the Taylor text is a clear winner. It provides the a strong foundation in the core concepts of microeconomics (scarcity, consumer choice, supply and demand, market structure, externalities, and trade) while also providing detailed material on two other important topics: risk and information and financial markets. It does this a cost much below those of McConnell and Mankiw. One negative of the Taylor text is that it is written for undergraduate students attending U.S. colleges and universities. While this may be an issue for some students and will require a bit of legwork on my part to bring in Canadian examples, I still feel the benefits of the open-access text far outweigh the costs.

Farm Size and Span of Control

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Two posts in one week…a record!

Thanks to the muse that is twitter, I have another topic I felt was worthy of a post. Michael Pollan shared a tweet on the decline of the small American family farm.

Here is the link to the entire Washington Post article if you are interested.

This actually makes a good topic on management issues in my AGRC 113 course that focuses on issues and institutions in agriculture.

Over the past 50 years, why has farm size increased to the extent that it has?

For one, the productivity gains from new machinery is amazing compared to what farmers were using 50 years ago. Just think of how much more difficult planting would be if you actually had to steer or know when to shut of the individual units! Overall, the innovations in machinery technology have enabled better managers to farm current acres more efficiently. This brings up two managerial concepts, span of control and managerial resources. Through more efficient technologies, managers are able to ‘control’ more acres in the same amount of time. Or, put differently, by using the new technologies, managers release additional managerial resources (i.e. time) that can be used in other areas of the farm. Given the choice set of where these managers could invest this time to get the highest return, some may choose to invest it in farming more land. As more and more farmers make this choice, average farm size increases.

Secondly, as some have pointed out, there are still small farms in the U.S. and elsewhere. What has been evident when looking at the data is a hollowing out of the distribution as some medium-sized farms have decided to exit the industry (or get bigger). Two fact sheets from the USDA help illustrate this point although both are a little old as they use data from the 2007 Census of Agriculture. These fact sheets report farm size as a function of sales, so price increases that occurred during these periods may skew the data somewhat. In the first one, we see that the number of very small farms (less than $10,000 in sales) is growing and farms with sales between $100,000 and $249,999 have declined somewhat. In the second one, we have more info and more questions. We see that the number of farms with sales greater than $250,000 have grown since the 2002 Census of Agriculture, and I think this is good. One possible source for this increase is the decrease in the number of farms with sales between $10,000 and $249,000.

The other factor that might lead to larger farm sizes is the use of mobile technology. With smartphones and tablets now the rule not the exception, today’s commercial farmer is always connected to markets and information that affects their farm and industry. With greater connectivity, managers are only a text or call away from their broker, their herdsman, their combine operator, or their family. This again increases the span of control and frees constraints on managerial time as through this technology, farmers are able to manage the same amount of tasks more efficiently.

There is probably more nuance to it than this, but I have to get back to working on paper.

Food dollar nonsense

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I am constantly reminding myself that I need to write more blog posts, but it seems that something else always distracts from the writing.  Maybe it is just not having a topic that I wanted to write about.  Well, as luck would have it, yesterday I saw a tweet that stoked the fire.

This is one of the kinds of things that really gets me shaking my head. I mean, what’s the point of it? Yes, a loaf of bread in Canada can run anywhere from $1.99 to $4.59, but does that mean a bushel of wheat should be worth $270?

What this tweet misses is the fact that when I want to make a sandwich, I do not want to have to go and find a wheat farmer who has high quality wheat so I can make my own bread. I also assume said farmer doesn’t want to sell me just enough wheat so I can make a single loaf of bread as I do not have the capacity to make 100 loaves at the time. Either way, now that I have all this wheat, I need to mill it into flour. I do not own such equipment, nor do I want to.

What we often forget when we see food dollar comments, is the price for a good (in this case a loaf of bread) includes much more than just the raw input. It includes the costs of coordinating the value chain so a loaf of bread can be in my grocery store when I want to buy one. It includes the costs (and normal profits) for several firms within the channel, including the grain handlers, the millers, the bakers, the transporters, and the grocery stores. So a farmer gets $0.07 for a loaf of bread, which all things considered, seems pretty close. In order for firms to receive (earn) higher prices for their inputs, they need to transform these inputs into usable forms for the consumer and get the inputs to where the consumer wants them. Then, and possibly only then, will farmers receive more than $0.07 for a loaf of bread.

University Committees, Degrees, and Branding

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As a faculty member, I have the privilege to sit on a number of department and college committees. One of the more interesting committees I sit on is the undergraduate programs committee for our college. In one of the meetings, the topic of residency and degrees came up. In terms of this discussion, residency means how many credits were earned at a specific institution. The issue before the committee is, how many credits should a student have to earn from a particular institution before they earn a degree from that institution. Is it 30 credits? 60 credits? Does it even matter? There was a lively discussion about this, and I’m not sure how the decision will go, but here are my thoughts on it.

First, it is a complex issue. One one hand, we want to encourage students from other institutions to come to our university and take our courses, and establishing higher residency requirements may limit the number of students who transfer to, and eventually graduate from our institution. On the other hand, the residency requirement acts as a form of ‘quality control’. By having some minimum requirement, we are able to gather more information about the quality of the student before they walk away with a degree with our university’s name on it. At its heart, I see this as a branding issue, and as a quality control issue. To illustrate my concern, I used a manufacturing example in the meeting. Would Company A feel comfortable branding a product where 75% of the process was conducted at Company B? What if it was 50%? While this is not a perfect analogy (as these companies have established strict guidelines as to what has to happen to satisfy the terms of the contract) the issue is the same. Without any way to monitor quality at the first institution (where a bulk of the education takes place), the risk falls entirely on the company with the brand. In that case, I think gathering more information (in terms of credits) is probably the sound strategy, but maybe I am missing something.

If you have any thoughts about this, I would be happy to hear them.

Conferencing — WERA edition

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I am sitting in the Las Vegas airport waiting to board my flight to Minneapolis having just left the last session of the Western Education and Research Activities conference that was held at the lovely Excalibur Hotel and Casino.  One participant traveled all the way from Nigeria to attend the conference.  It was great to see both old and new faces.  

For this group, I serve as the vice-chair, so I helped organize the conference along with the other members of the executive committee.  This year’s meeting featured presentations that focused on agribusiness teaching and learning outcomes as well as presentations on risk management in agri-food chains, global agri-food chains, and entrepreneurship and marketing.We had a pretty good turn out of 24 members, but we would always like a few more.  We had a nice discussion during out business meeting about how to increase participation for future meetings.  I think we got some good ideas and I am excited to try them out for the next meeting, which will be held in Santa Clara, CA next year.  

Next week I head to Atlanta for the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association meetings where I will be presenting some research from one of my graduate students.  Now if I could just finalize the presentation….

Student Feedback

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Like any other business, it is important for faculty to gather information from our customers to see how well we are doing. In business world, this is done through comment cards, social media, or other methods such as surveys. At the University of Saskatchewan, we have the SEEQ (Student Evaluation of Educational Quality) questionnaire. We have recently moved to an online format of evaluation, and yesterday I received an email stating that my results were in. It is always with a bit of nervousness that I open these as I want to see if my idea of how the course went matches the students’ perception.

I think the best part of the student evaluations are the comments as these are actually what the students want to say, not the answer to a question they might not care about. It is fun to get together with other teachers and discuss the comments. One of my favorites was from a grad student friend of mine who was told his shoes were too squeaky. This year, my comments were pretty positive, but there was some room for improvement in providing timely feedback and making the class a little different from another class.

As these are anonymous, I think I can post some of the better (funnier) comments. I chose not to post the comments that said I was terrible.

Enjoy!

Student: I had a wonderful time this semester attending this class. Eric is full of humor which kept the class light and I only fell asleep during class once the entire semester! :)

Student: Even the 5 page essay was interesting to research and didn’t feel like a form of punishment.

Student: Previous students said this class was easy but apparently that changed… with no warning.. until the mid-term.

And finally, one that I will have to show the folks in charge of tenure and promotion…

Student: One of the best lecturers I have encountered so far. Even though he is currently an assistant professor, he deserves to be a professor. Excellent at making a boring topic more interesting.

Conference Season

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Well, the school year is finally over for me. Exams have been marked and grades are submitted, so now I get to do what I want to do. I am currently working on a few research projects and will be presenting some of the findings at various conferences this summer.

The first conference I am attending is the Alberta Agricultural Economics Association meetings which are being held in Red Deer, Alberta.  This is my first go-round as an invited speaker, so that is new. At these meetings, I will be presenting some of my research on agricultural innovation.  I have never attended this conference, so I am excited to see the presentations and meet some new people.  The world of agricultural economics is a small one, and even more so when it is limited to a specific region within a specific country.  For those interested, a copy of my slides are available here 

After the Red Deer meetings, I have a few weeks at Saskatoon before on the road to Las Vegas and Atlanta for two other meetings. Then off to Warsaw and Washington, DC in July and August. Should be a fun summer!