Before I start I’d like to make it very clear that despite the failure of the AS Economics syllabus and examination to present Economics as what it is: a science, I personally still consider it one of the most interesting and useful subjects to learn. The Mathematics of game theory in particular leads to surprising and deep conclusions about human beings, and nothing, not even UK examinations, can change that. In addition my dislike of the subject at AS has nothing to do with my teachers – the actual lessons and discussions were invariably absorbing and relevant to current affairs, which made the unfortunate syllabus some ‘genius’ working for the government came up with so much more tolerable.
So, the exam is finally over, and it’s time for an elucidation of why doing it at AS is such a bad idea. I’ll split it into two parts: why Economics is taught wrongly at AS, and why not to do it at AS, which are arguably two different things.
Why it’s taught wrongly
My primary concern is the fact that it is treated explicitly as an essay subject rather than a highly mathematical and scientific subject. The natural language of Economics is maths and logic – Economics is about allocation of resources and decisions. This inevitably invokes game theory which was developed by von Neumann explicitly for decision making. Insulting the poor guy and choosing to waffle about market failure instead of putting to use the tool he spent is life creating just seems a waste of time to me.
The models that are taught seem, after thinking about them for a bit, either completely useless or completely nonsensical. Firstly uselessness: almost all the models that are taught at AS involve graphs with straight lines which seem to go extremely fuzzy at the axes. Even the shape of these lines is unclear, so to extrapolate that if a certain line shifts, with the fallacious and limiting assumption of ceteris paribus, then price will rise, which luckily coincides with what you’d conclude from common sense, is just bad practice. So much time and effort is put into learning and understanding how these graphs work, and ultimately the same problem can be easily solved by common sense, and a more complex problem would be more efficiently and more accurately solved using Maths rather than graphically. In real life, as my teacher pointed out, the government wouldn’t sit there poring over a diagram of SRAS shifting to help them set fiscal policy. Secondly nonsensical: (this will only make enough sense to be nonsensical to those who have done AS economics, if you know what I mean…) consider a rightwards shift in the Keynesian LRAS: long-term economic growth:
Since the flat part of the curve represents mass unemployment, economic growth appears to have caused mass unemployment! At one point I asked my teacher about it, and his response was something like ‘the model is basically a lie, so don’t read too much into it’.
Why not to do it
The Mark Scheme is the key deterrent. Doing the exams feels like pretending to be a psychic – even though you might write something that is completely correct and answers a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the question, you could still fail to pick up a single mark because you haven’t read the examiner’s mind and your answer isn’t compatible with the rigid mark scheme he has written.
The structured answer required of candidates to a long essay answer typically consists of a definition, some explanation of why the process works, and evaluation. For the past six months, evaluation has been the bane of my existence: it is basically explaining at great length why your answer is wrong and/or inadequate. Evaluation is basically saying ‘the answer could be different if the initial conditions were different’. In the words of KPZ: No spit Sherlock! A typical evaluation might be ‘the significance of this factor that I have just painstakingly described is actually completely negligible because the quantities involved are so small’ or ‘I do not know the size of the multiplier so I have just wasted my time writing half a page on why the multiplier augments the increase in aggregate demand’. This is perhaps a function of the essay style of the exam, and the lack of calculation, making the entire affair a hand-wavey vague generalisation of how a generic economy might behave if only one thing is permitted to change at a time.
A structured answer in my opinion to a question like ‘evaluate the likely success of supply-side policies’ is to begin with assumptions and at that point determine the likely precision of these assumptions; in effect setting initial conditions for the solution of a differential equation with error bars. For example giving some formula for the probability density of the value of a constant, e.g. ‘The size of the multiplier M ~ N (1.3, 0.3)’ or ‘M = 1.6 +/- 0.2’. Now that all this is empirically established, there’s no real need to evaluate: it would be pointless afterwards saying ‘the result could be wrong if the multiplier had a different value’ since you’ve already quantitatively given an explicit formula for the probability that the multiplier is different. The next step would be to set about using a model to calculate the precise effect of various supply-side policies, taking into account the uncertainties in initial conditions set out in the assumption, and also taking into account the potential innacuracy of the model. Now you have a very secure answer with already inbuilt evaluation. Such an answer would probably receive an extremely low mark because it contains no evaluation, and the discounted cash flow model and Black-Scholes probably don’t feature in the mark scheme. And I haven’t written a definition of a supply-side policy.
Another ridiculous feature of the exam is the number of marks: a question requiring merely a bog standard definition can be worth up to 6 marks. To make things worse the number of marks available per paper has doubled since last year so a previously 4 mark question would be worth 8 marks. All this means it is extremely stressful taking the exam: only a single line of question is sufficient to inflict four pages and thirty marks of suffering upon a candidate. To make things worse it’s almost impossible to guess how the marks are allocated, and exactly what the question requires.
Probably the hardest part of the exam for me was the supported multiple choice, a feature of the microeconomics module. This is the most blatantly exam technique-oriented part of the exam in my opinion, as it is possible to gain marks by explaining why some of the other alternatives are incorrect – the so-called knock-out marks. Multiple choice is actually in itself an excellent way to test knowledge, and having to jump through hoops and explain in depth something that you already clearly understand from having chosen the correct answer in the first place strikes me as woefully torturous to the candidate. To make things worse, the amount of stating the obvious required in these questions is insufferable.
So in conclusion, AS Economics should not be called AS Economics. It should instead be called something like AS Exam Technique, or AS Mark Scheme guessing. The amount of correct or accurate or useful economics contained in the course is truly minimal, and the exam almost killed me (and my hand). The only reason I can give for anyone to actually do AS Economics is if they want to do it at university, where the true elegance and beauty of the subject is really done justice (or so I hear). Otherwise you’re in for a year of hating examiners and their awkwardly constructed mark schemes.
On a lighter note, this is what was on the actual mark scheme of a past paper, word for word:
Q: With the aid of a diagram, explain how high guaranteed prices resulted in milk surpluses (Extract 2, lines 9-10) [6 marks]
A: High guaranteed prices encourage farmers to increase output because they know that there is a ready market for their produce. Therefore, they will use more fertiliser, better seeds etc to ensure higher output.