Don’t let the word ‘economic’ frighten you away from Robert Frank’s reader-friendly and thoroughly fascinating exploration of these ordinary mysteries we encounter every day.
The Economic Naturalist grew out of an assignment that Frank uses in his introductory economics course. Students are instructed to “pose and answer an interesting question about some pattern of events or behavior that you personally have observed.” These papers, of course, are intended to help students apply principles of economics to real-world situations. This approach, Frank argues, allows students to master the basic principles of economics easily and in a useful and memorable context. The average student who survives an economics class is unlikely to remember even the first concept. Says Frank, “Most of them spend so much effort trying to make sense of the mathematical details that the intuition behind economic ideas escapes them.”
As a teaching method, Frank’s ‘naturalist’ assignment seems to be an ideal antidote to the problem of boredom and confusion. Even better, The Economic Naturalist is available to the rest of us, and, Oh! What fun it is. Haven’t you wondered
Answers to these and dozens of other intriguing questions are presented here, but they aren’t necessarily the definitive answers. “I tell my students that the answers to the questions should be viewed as intelligent hypotheses suitable for further refinement and testing,” explains Frank. “Their answers don’t have to be correct.” In other words, Frank has devised an assignment that is fun, that requires students to consider a host of contributing factors, and that enables the students to incorporate personal experience, making the lessons learned much more memorable. As a teaching tool, it’s excellent. And for readers who enjoy ferreting out solutions themselves, there is ample opportunity to draw other conclusions either through research or intuition.
- Why do the keypads on drive-up ATMs have Braille dots?
- Why does it cost more to fly from Kansas City to Orlando than from Orlando to Kansas City?
- Why do bars charge for water but give away free peanuts?
- Why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
More importantly to me, however, is the entertainment factor. I’ve seen some of these same questions floating around the internet, and I have been mildly amused by the notion of Braille dots on drive-up cash machine keyboards. The answer to that particular riddle, as presented in The Economic Naturalist, is logical and embarrassingly obvious: since ATM manufacturers have to make keypads with Braille dots for their walk-up machines, why not make them all with Braille dots? Otherwise there would have to be separate manufacturing processes, inventories, and distribution systems, which would increase expenses for everyone.
Interspersed with these fun questions and answers, you’ll also find mini economics lessons that tie in so seamlessly, you’ll wonder why you ever thought this was a dull subject. Hard to believe, but The Economic Naturalist is a highly entertaining read.