Category Archives: Research

Microeconomics: Khan vs MIT

My daughter is studying CLEP coursework for college credit while she waits for her residency status to improve (aka qualify for in state tuition).  I told her I’d start Microeconomics with her.  She found a book at the library, while I tried two different Microeconomics tracks: one from Khan Academy, and one from MIT.  Here’s how the introduction classes compared:

Course Selection:

Khan: easy to find, one class to choose – select and go.
MIT: I’ve no idea whether to do 14.01SC or 14.01. I went with the latter ( I think ) 

Khan Intro video:  10 minutes.  Quote from Adam Smith and discussion of invisible hand and that it’s sometimes a net good for society if individual actors are allowed to make their own self interested choices – not always, but also not never.  He emphasized timing – 1776 connected with birth of USA – also that often when we pursue self interest the net societal gain can exceed the gain if we were to act with society in mind.  Again, not always but not never either.

Overall the video was easy easy to understand and provided a clear description of micro vs macro – micro is individual actor, macro is millions of these actors.

Khan then emphasized that economic math is based on simplifications and assumptions, so when doing the math, one must remember:  a) take with grain of salt, b) keep in mind the common sense of what’s going on; if the math leads to wonky conclusions, check the assumptions, don’t blindly trust the math.

I loved the way Khan taught this introduction video.  He emphasized ideas physically on the black board in such a way that made it effortless for my brain to compartmentalize the newly learned ideas away in a logical packing.  For example, his discussion of simplifications and assumptions: he went through this both for micro and macro – thereby emphasizing the importance and the ubiquity of the concept.  He could have said, “this applies to both fields”, but by writing it out twice, one for each, I just ‘got’ it – no need to actively put that info away into my brain myself.  He did it for me.  

MIT Intro video ( Professor is Jonathan Gruber – teaching a live class): (34 min)  Video Hits me up for a donation straight away.  Really MIT?  Don’t you have an endowment fund in the tens of billions of dollars? Er, I’ll delay that donation for now guys, k? Query: what’s the net present value of that promise?

I hit play.  Within one minute I’m thinking,  Dude! The teacher is of Steve Jobs Intensity.  I’m regretting having had so much coffee this morning. This is how I feel:

This is me at MIT

Teacher: “Micro is a dismal science because we make you choose between options.  We say, ‘You can’t have everything, you have to give up x to get y’, and that’s why people don’t like us.”  

Uh, er, that’s not why I don’t like you bud.  Dude – dial it back.  

deep breath, deep breath. sip coffee.

<two minutes later>

Now, he’s explaining why microeconomics doesn’t suck.  What?  I don’t know if I can get through an entire semester with this guy.  

Teacher: “I’m going to take everything you love in life and write it down as a U function”  But I’m hearing Tyrone from Princess Bride say, “I’m going to suck all of the joy out of your life, one semester at a time. I just sucked one day of joy away, now tell me, and this is for posterity, so please be honest, how does that make you feel?”  

OOF – I don’t know – I’m 5:42 in and I’m looking for the exits already.  

@7:34: I’m thinking he’s just going through the textbook.  He’s going from his podium notes to the black board and verbalizing the textbook. There’s no taking a step back and commenting on what and why we’re learning micro.  He’s not differentiating micro vs macro.  I could read all of what he’s saying – and probably enjoy it more – because it wouldn’t have this anxiety laced edge.  This teacher adds zero value.  

Thing is –  I learn best in class – with a good lecturer.  Whenver I have a good teacher – I excel.  Frickin Jack Crandall – High school physics junior year – LOVED that guy.  I didn’t care what he looked like or what he wore *.  The way he explained physics simply took my mind on a fascinating journey for 50 minutes every feaking day. This MIT professor had nothing on Jack Crandall.  With this guy? I pretty much want to sneak out to the smoke hole and toke a bowl at this point.  

@8:03: he’s covered 3 fundamental questions of micro + the comment “these are all resolved by one variable: prices”  No discussion of how bloody SIMPLIFIED this whole theory is.  So now I’m sitting here actively thinking ‘no, it’s not that simple – there’s more going on than prices – there’s war and conflict and disease and stoicism and consumerism and messaging from birth through death and …’ on and on.  He keeps putting up obstacles to my learning by making these clench jawed assertions.  I feel like I’m being force fed and I have to open wide even though I’m stuffed already.  

@8:24 – goodie – casual example – story time – yeah! development of ipod.

@9:14: “$300 bucks, back, when $300 bucks meant something.”  wait – are you regurgitating a tired inflation refrain from decades ago when it was relevant?  Shit, man, these are college students – $300 is a lot of money still, even if they come from wealthy families.  You are an economist for chrissakes.  Inflation has been insanely low since the ipod was introduced.  Okay, okay, sorry, I should cut you some slack. Maybe this is your first video taped lecture and you are nervous.  Carry on…

@10:10 – he’s pacing.  I’m nervous.  body language: arms crossed, hands tucked under armpits.  Okay, confirmed: he’s nervous.  

@11:30 – now he’s panning Lady Gaga.  Way to alienate your audience, buddy

@11:31 – now I’m focusing on nonsense – pleated khakis.  Ergh.  He’s explaining that his youth was spent standing in line to buy cars tickets.  Okay – he’s not a new teacher.  why is he so amped up / nervous?

Class Notes:

Theoretical vs empirical economics – models vs data.  Ok – clearly explained.

Positive vs normative economics – how things are vs how things should be – got it.  

Perfectly competitive market – ebay – producers offer goods to wide range of consumers – consumers bid up price until person who places highest value on good gets it.  answers third fundamental question which is who gets the good. Kidney auction on ebay – got to $5M before it was shut down by ebay.  

At least he’s giving an example that is relevant, fun to think about, easy to relate to.  Not bad.

Positive question: why did cost of kidney get so high?  He discusses supply / demand / scarcity – at last mentions Adam Smith – water diamond paradox – water important diamonds are irrelevant yet diamonds are expensive and water is free.  Because you haven’t considered supply.  Demand is high, but supply much higher, so price is lower. Similar in kidney case: demand is high (you die w/o it), so people will spend everything they have.. supply is low – price goes through roof.  This is positive analysis.

Normative question: should this sale be allowed?  They decided ‘no selling of body parts’.  But *should* they have done that?  *Should* auctioning of body parts be allowed?  On one hand, people die all the time, if someone is rich, why shouldn’t they be able to pay for a surplus body part?  

Wow, it’s way into the seminar and at last he asks a question to the class. Thank goodness he restated what the students answered.  But he’s summarizing based on what he thinks, he’s not checking w students to make sure he paraphrased per their intent.  I’m not terribly impressed with this MIT teacher. He’s guiding the answers and thus communicating, “I don’t really care what you have to say here”.    He cuts one student off mid sentence when he ‘gets’ what they’re getting at.  Bad teacher!

He knows his subject, but he’s not a skilled teacher.  He’d crash and burn in middle school.  

That said, I do now understand that ‘normative’ means ‘what SHOULD be’ – which  I must keep in mind during the whole semester.  Okay.  Cool.

@30:00 Poses an economics question about buying the textbook for the class. Should the students buy a used 4th edition text book or 5th edition text book, at respective costs of $85 vs $130.  “Well if your parents are paying for it then who cares your risk aversion, preference, just buy the 5th edition, amirite?”   This is a throw away comment – thrown out there for no better reason than to regurgitate conventional wisdom that Ivy league school parents have deep pockets and therefore their interests in saving $ / optimizing $ choices can be disregarded.  WTF.  I hate comments like that.  Alienating students strike #2.

Alienating comment #3: “Professional pool players are not guys who are able to do the (angular) computations”  WTF?  You are calling pro pool players stupid?  Dude, you need to stop making throw away assertions that lead your audience to want to argue against you.  Lady Gaga, rich parents, stupid pool players.  There’s ZERO utility in these assertions.  Cut them out.  Your utility function is sub-optimized when you do this.

I just feel like Prof Gruber is telling and not teaching.

Hands down, I prefer Khan over MIT, at least for Intro to Microeconomics.

*for the curious – handle bar mustache, polyester pants, short sleeved collared engineering shirts with pens in the pockets.  J. Crandall was ready to ROLL – a marble down an incline plane and predict where it would land on the floor given the physical measurements of the table and incline plane.