Picture Books for Teaching Economics Concepts to Young Children

Greg Mankiw’s blog points us to a discussion about picture books that teach basic economic concepts to very young children, by Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, including recommendations offive picture books for children ages pre-school to age 8 or 10.  She is an international economist mostly addressing women’s labor market issues, but with young children of her own, found herself also turning to these pedagogical questions.  (State board of education requirements have various goals in place for teaching to the very young such notions as the difference between wants and needs, etc.)

I found the list interesting in part because the books seem to focus on such questions as envy, distribution, fairness, and what it means to be poor.  Going by the Amazon links, there doesn’t seem to be much in them in the way of concepts of efficiency and overall welfare maximization.  Let alone anything related to incentives or property rights.  I wonder if that is a reflection of van der Meulen Rodgers’ own predilections, a function of the the social and political priorities of state boards of education – or perhaps efficiency is intrinsically a more difficult concept to convey than distributional fairness.

I find that last thought intriguing as a teacher of law and economics to first year students in a seminar elective.  Many of the students, particularly those for whom this seminar was their second or third choice elective (i.e., didn’t really volunteer for the course), find the notion of efficiency hard to grasp.  Their instinctive reaction is common to law students – try to change the subject back to something they do understand, or at least shift the conversation so that they can relate it to something they already know something about, fairness and distribution.  I patiently explain that in this class, we’re assuming that they already know a lot about fairness, and that we are going to set it aside in order to enter the world of efficiency.  You have to play the Coase games on their own terms and from the inside if you want to pass the class.  (Cue some level of student unhappiness as they realize that they won’t be able to dodge the issue by changing the subject.)

So I do have a sense that fairness is intuitively easier for people, including perhaps very young children, to understand compared to efficiency.  That said, however, the books that seem to me most obviously missing from this list are the Greatest Works on Incentives Ever – which is to say the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie … series.  Those books, and particularly the If You Give a Moose a Muffin iteration, teach important lessons about “reward behavior, get more of it.”

Older readers might recall that these books figure in the 1990s movie, Air Force One.  First Daughter asks President Harrison Ford why he can’t just negotiate with the terrorists, and he replies something like, do you remember “if you give a mouse a cookie,” and the daughter replies, “the next thing he’ll want is a glass of milk.”  (I’ll probably read the Moose book aloud to my first year class.)

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