Column: How many economists does it take?

Farm Forum

Late last month, several of my colleagues and I decided to drop by MJ 246 to catch Hillar Neumann’s last ever lecture at Northern State.

Dr. Neumann was preparing his students for a critical topic on their microeconomics final exam: an understanding of how prices were set under theoretical conditions of pure monopoly and perfect competition. As he sketched his diagrams on the board, Dr. Neumann peppered his students with questions about ideas they should already have mastered: opportunity costs, demand curves, equilibrium.

He brought in real life examples, contrasting the student who, after one snowstorm, had still driven 60 miles to get to class with another who, here in Aberdeen, had decided to stay home. Fifty minutes of laughter and important ideas left students and guests wanting more. How is regulation going to affect price setting? What about taxes? What about advertising? And do you have any more stories about you and your wife, Hillar?

Over the years, Dr. Neumann had been a frequent guest in my classes. Sometimes because I’d asked him in advance to come in and talk about economic issues, but, more often, on an impromptu basis.

Hillar would stick his head in my classroom door, and I’d invite him in: “Tell the class why they should be thankful the Fed is watching out for them, Dr. Neumann.” For Hillar, no fan of the Fed, of central-bank attempts to steer the economy, or of fiat currency in general, that’s all it took to launch him on an insta-lecture. After five minutes of laughs and a vital economic lesson or two, I’d steal the chalk back from Dr. Neumann and edge him out the door, often citing a twisted version of Gresham’s law: Bad professors drive out good.

Like Dr. Neumann, Richard (my economics major son), finds it easy to transform the “dismal science” into a comedy routine. His “Econ Love Ballad” (you can find it on YouTube) puts complicated economic jargon (transitivity, reflexivity, aggregation) into an amusing and easily understood context.

Looking closely at the current state of the American and global economies requires a sense of humor, and, especially, the ability to laugh at the absurd.

When the Dow Jones average broke the 15,000 barrier for the first time earlier this month, the economically illiterate were overjoyed

The economy is on track! Growth! Jobs! Prosperity! Those who follow economic news more closely were less sanguine, realizing that the major factor driving stock prices upward is Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s decision to continue “quantitative easing” (buying up commercial banks assets) indefinitely.

Now I don’t understand the implications of quantitative easing as much as I’d like, and I’d love a Hillar insta-lecture on the subject. I’m sure there would be warnings about the Fed playing with fire, but, even if he were warning of economic Armageddon, there would be plenty of laughs.

“A merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” says Proverbs. Having a teacher with a sense of humor does wonders in helping students master difficult and sometimes unpalatable economic truths.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.