The Economics of Economics Textbooks

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.