I – and I believe many of my fellow economics professors – seek not to get our introductory students to learn specific facts or techniques but to begin to “think like an economist.”

I want them to abandon wishful thinking, good vs. evil analogies, just-so-stories and general ad hocery, in favor of treating human behavior as if it stemmed from some (perhaps unknown or even unknowable) set of systematic principles. In particular we are big on the notion that people respond to incentives.

Students it turns out are people. While “thinking like an economist” is often a bitter pill, this semester it went down much easier – and I think I see why. No less than half of the final papers were written on either immigration in general or the DREAM act in particular. A typical paragraph

Immigrants not only join the circular flow of the economy as labor, but also as consumers. They spend money on goods and services which results in firms having more revenue. Higher revenues tend to increase firm production to meet the higher demand of consumers. This increased production most likely would result in more jobs as firms expand to meet the needs of consumers. On a very basic level, this explains why immigration would only serve to expand the economy.

Unlike our discussions of taxes, rent control and the minimum wage “thinking like an economist” gives them in edge in an argument they already want to make: that the US should be more welcoming to immigrants.

While it is encouraging to see the tools taken up so easily, it is a warning that we cannot be sure students or the public generally has abandoned ad hocery when the systematic explanation does in fact suit their immediate needs.