Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Political Economic Thought

This semester, I taught a course titled “Political Economic Thought”. It was the first time I taught this course – and I think it was a success. We read nine books (in this order):

1. Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engles. “The Communist Manifesto.” Signet Classic. 1998.

2. Sowell, Thomas. “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.” Simon & Schuster. 1999.

3. Krugman, Paul. “The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008.” W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2009.

4. Powell, Jim. “FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression.” Three Rivers Press. 2003.

5. Stiglitz, Joseph E. “Freefall: American, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy.” W.W. Norton. 2010.

6. Sowell, Thomas. “The Housing Boom and Bust.” Simon & Schuster. 2009.

7. Thaler, Richard H. and Cass R. Sunstein. “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Revised and Expanded Edition.” Penguin Books. 2009.

8. Friedman, Milton. “Capitalism and Freedom, Fortieth Anniversary Version.” The University of Chicago Press. 2002.

9. Cowen, Tyler. “Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist.” Dutton Adult. 2007.

Overall, the objective of this course was to give students several different perspectives on economic issues from extremely bright individuals. I think we succeeded in that. When asking whether students changed their political philosophies, most said no, although two who thought of themselves as more “liberal” at the beginning of class said they are now more libertarian on some economic issues, and one who was more conservative said he is more convinced of the need for government intervention in some cases. Almost all seemed to say they had a greater appreciation for the “other side’s” perspectives on the issues.

Some comments from the students:

There was wide disagreement on what they viewed as the best and worst books. Some thought The Communist Manifesto was clearly worst, but it was so short and historical that they didn’t really think it was bad. Two thought Friedman was the worst – although I think the timing (at the end of the semester between two less-controversial books) might have had something to do with that. One student thought Friedman was the best. Several thought Nudge was the best. One thought the Quest for Cosmic Justice was best, and one two thought Stiglitz was the best. A couple didn't like Powell's books, but several really liked them.  Several thought Powell’s Great Depression book was the worst, but the class was unanimous about leaving it on the reading list. Why?

What did the students agree about at the end of the term?

The overwhelming response was that they were educated inadequately about the Great Depression. Our book by Powell goes into the nitty-gritty details of the Great Depression.  It is tough to read that book and come out with a good impression of FDR or think that his policies improved lives during the Great Depression. Students overwhelmingly got the impression by their high school (and even college) teachers that FDR helped improve the economy while he was in office. More than one student now thinks FDR was one of (if not the) worst president in US history. (I agree.)

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