Looking through the Sunday papers I was struck by 3 items: an investigative report on the basketball system in Russia and Lithuania; an op-ed by Serge Schmemann on Putin's Russia; and a magazine article by Peter Singer on what we owe the least advantaged in the world.
I have really only had 3 jobs in my life that had meaning to me: (a) coaching basketball, (b) teaching tennis, and (c) being an academic economist. In fact, my understanding of the Christian notion of "calling" emerged in my experience with these three professions at different stages of my life. And at different phases of my life I have tried to balance at least two of these at a time, but obviously never all three. For example, currently I am a college professor of economics but also a high school and AAU basketball coach. Anyway, for the past 10 years I have put in a lot of time studying basketball technique and strategy (building on a knowledge base gleaned in high school and college and working as a counselor at summer camps in my youth). So reading the Washington Post article on the development of youth basketball talent in Russia and Lithuania was fascinating to me. I often watch Europe League basketball precisely because I appreciate the sound fundamentals and the "spacing" that they create offensively in their systems. One of the interesting points made in the article was that in their youth development, competitive play begins only at 12, while training starts at 8. In other words, the players are taught right fundamentals between 8 and 12 before they start serious competition. Winning basketball is about Tenacious Team Defense, Unselfish Team Offense and Superior Fundamentals, and the Europeans have taken this message from Dean Smith to heart.
The stress on fundamentals is as true for economics as it is for sports. Percentage tennis, for example, can be broken down into a few fundamentals: first serve, return of serve, first volley, passing shot. The aggressive player on these shots will win the point more often than not. In basketball, it is all about defense, rebounding, and offensive efficiency. Well in economics, it is about basic economics and the consistent and persistent pursuit of the economic way of thinking to a wide variety of topics in the world. Good economics does not worry about political "feasibility" but tracking truth. The focus should not be on intending to do good, but actually accomplishing good in the world.
Serge Schmemann's piece on Putin is extremely insightful on how appearances can be deceiving. The politicalization of economic life still remains the norm in Putin's Russia. Relationships between individuals remain that of hierarchy and dominion rather than one of mutuality and voluntary exchange.
Peter Singer's essay on what the rich should donate to address problems of poverty, disease and death in the development world is well worth reading. Though the calculation of how much our income we should give up to pursue global justice does appear as arbitrary as anything I have ever seen. And for a utilitarian Singer does not address the consequences of policy to the extent one would hope. Back to fundamentals — in the economic way of thinking we can distiguish between endowments and choices, and we admit that we can do things to change endowments, but not in a manner that does not impact on the choices of individuals. Every moral philosopher I have met who works on questions of global redistribution seems to recognize this point when you push it, but they often don't seem to "get it" in terms of the weight this has in assessing alternative possibilities in addressing poverty, disease and death.
Anyway, the "European" way of teaching fundamentals is analogous to what I try to do with my graduate students at GMU. We have a graduate student paper workshop (Frederic Sautet is actually in charge of that now), we get them involved in the classroom, and at conferences, and we encouage the students to try to publish early on in their careers. But we start in environments that are competitive but sympathetic and then, as they develop their fundamentals, move on to highly competitive and unsympathetic environments (conferences and targetted journals). This system has produced very productive scholars, such as Ed Stringham, Ben Powell, Pete Leeson, and Chris Coyne. We are constantly trying to perfect that training ground at GMU, but our goal is to produce scholars of economics who have mastered the fundamentals of basic economics, and become skilled communicators of economic argument and evidence.