THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 9, Spring 1995

William A. McEachern, Editor

Encarta'95 Economics

Encarta'95, a Microsoft CD-ROM, bills itself as "the complete interactive multimedia encyclopedia." Many of the 26,256 so-called "articles" in Encarta'95 come from Funk & Wagnall's New Encyclopedia. Some are as short as a sentence, mere definitions. About one fifth involve multimedia - that is, they involve one or more media beyond the printed word.

In most cases the "multi" of the media is a picture. Of the 4,961 articles with media beyond electronic print, 4,420 have pictures, 1,007 have sound, 596 have tables or charts, 569 have maps, 83 have animations, 29 have videos, and six are interactive, meaning that the user must respond to questions. Note that only 2% of the multimedia articles and 0.5% of all articles involve moving pictures.

Since Encarta'95 is the best selling multimedia encyclopedia on the market (based in part on Microsoft's strong reputation), and since students will increasingly come to rely on these computer-based alternatives as learning resources, let's review the economic content.

As far as economics is concerned, the multimedia part is largely useless. For example, there are no sound clips that relate to economics, though there are brief (20-second) sound clips of some public figures. I found no videos or animations that developed any economic ideas. When economics is pictured, the focus is often one of pathology, such as pictures from the Great Depression. A few, mostly classical, economists are pictured - you know, those old, black-and-white photos that make economists look irrelevant. There are some tables and charts but most are dated. For example, poverty data are from 1986. So, pictures, tables, and charts are the only multimedia contributions to economics. But, of course, these can usually be found in any book on economics.

Like any encyclopedia, the coverage of economics is spotty. There are short biographies of some economists, and some articles are written by economists, such as articles on "economics," "money," and "capital." But most fundamental ideas get little or no coverage. Many key ideas appear nowhere in Encarta'95, such as marginal benefit, opportunity cost, and sunk cost. And some key ideas are confusing. For example, here's an explanation of comparative advantage:

"The comparative advantage comes if the mathematics of production costs and price received work out so that each trading partner has a product that will bring a better price in another country than it will at home."
Another example of confusion is the use of the term "supply" to mean both supply and quantity supplied, and "demand" to mean both demand and quantity demanded.

So students won't find much here they can't find in any encyclopedia. And they will find considerably less than in any principles book. What students can do with Encarta'95, however, is enter a key word or words and call up all the articles where the word or words appear - an electronic index, so to speak. For example, "economics" appears in 1499 articles and "economy" appears in 890. Encarta'95 finds a single word more readily than combinations of words. It can't easily find word strings but can find up to three combinations that appear within a line or two of each other. For example, the best it can do in finding "marginal cost" is to find articles where "marginal" and "cost" appear within a line or two of each other (in either order). Based on such a search, "marginal" and "cost" appear in only four articles out of 26,256, and in only two of these is marginal cost used in the economic sense.

Encarta'95 gives us a chance to explore the prevalence of individual words and word combinations. For example, "scarce resources" appears a dozen times but "unlimited wants" not once. "Money" never finds "happiness," but meets with "success" nine times and with "satisfaction" three times. "Wealth" is twice as common as "poverty" (334 vs. 155), and "economic depression" (92) more common than "economic recession" (19). "Economic recovery" and "economic prosperity" each appears 38 times. And "economic equality" (23) appears twice as much as "economic efficiency" (11).

The words "economist" or "economists" appear 137 times - less frequently than writers (1,295), poets (1,035), engineers (849), historians (442), physicians (386), physicists (368), chemists (317), and lawyers (222), but more frequently than psychologists (113), carpenters (38), sociologists (29), dentists (15), political scientists (11), and plumbers (2). (You may recall that Keynes argued in Essays in Persuasion that "If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.")

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