Economics and economic systems are very important to me. I’ve always been fascinated by them. At the same time, part of my motivation for studying economics has always been to try to understand better how society can improve the living standards of all it’s people. This is much the same motivation that has always driven the greatest economists such as Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and even Karl Marx. I hope I can help you to better understand the economic system in which you live as well as those in which others live. If we all become more knowledgeable, there’s a chance we might improve things.
Fig 1: Political-Economic systems/ideologies arranged in a spectrum.
Perhaps my greatest hope for the course is that you learn to think critically and deeper about economic systems and related issues. People feel strongly about their economic system and how their government should relate to it. Unfortunately, ideology, politics and slogans are too often used as substitutes for critical thinking and analysis. Too often people resort to simplistic and emotional labels. They act as if there’s only 2 or 3 systems called socialism, communism, or capitalism as illustrated in figures 1 or 2 shown here.
Worse yet, they classify these simplistic labels as either “good” or “evil”. The world isn’t that simple. People aren’t that simple. And no economy is that simple. No economic system is exactly like another. Yes, there are patterns, but there’s not just 2 or 3 systems, good and bad. Further, there’s strengths and weaknesses in each system. Facts are stubborn things. There’s room for disagreement, particularly in this course. But it needs to be informed and thoughtful disagreement, not simplistic sloganeering.
What Are We Studying?
One of the other things I hope you learn in this course is how economic theories & ideologies affect economic systems and how that affects how people live. I really want this course to take the “comparative” part of “comparative economic systems” seriously. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s not just compare different ideological perspectives on economic systems which is what the typical political-economic categorizations do. I want to compare actual working economies because economies and their empirical performance are the best evidence of what the economic system is. So let’s compare different countries, their economies and their performance.
Given this broad perspective, you may be curious as to what my own perspective is. My objective is to help present a course that helps you learn about multiple perspectives on economic issues. My objective is NOT to sell or push my own particular viewpoint. Of course, my views will necessarily color anything I write, the same way that personal views color any writer’s writings. Nonetheless, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll try to summarize my own views. In short, my own position is difficult to classify. I share many perspectives with those of free market, capitalist advocates. I do believe competitive markets can be a tremendous positive force in society. But I also know that markets only have these wonderful effects if certain conditions exist. Without sufficient regulation or guidance from government, markets can easily become as oppressive and exploitative as any dictator-run “socialist” system. At the same time there many goods and services that a free market, private property system simply won’t provide or provide to all who should (in my opinion) have access. It is necessary and desirable to have government and society create social institutions and services to provide these services. So my views are somewhat eclectic or pragmatic (I call it “realistic”). Many free-market fundamentalists think I’m a socialist. Many socialists think I’m a free-market capitalist. I particularly believe institutions, culture, and history matter – oftentimes more than ideology. I believe in checking the empirical record. Theory is nice, but only when it works. When it doesn’t and the facts don’t fit, we need new theories. In terms of economics background, my own specialized graduate studies were in what is called Social Economics, Institutional Economics, Human Resource Economics, Industrial Economics, and the History of Economic Thought.
You Help Pick the Topics
There’s a lot of “pedagogical innovations” happening in this course. In plain English, “pedagogical innovations” means this course is going operate differently than most courses you’ve had before. I’ll make another post to explain a lot of these innovations, but an important innovation here is you are going to help pick what we study this term. Normally the list of topics to be studied in a course is set by the professor. It’s the old model of “professor is expert – you listen and absorb”. This is going to be different. Within the overall umbrella of “comparative economic systems” there’s a lot of ways we could go about this. For example, in the not-too-distant past I used to focus on explaining all the different “ism’s” (communism, capitalism, etc) and explaing the history of each. It was very much an adaptation of the old lecture model to an online course.
This semester I want to do it differently. I think you’ll learn more and this course will be more meaningful if you learn about economic systems by doing your own exploration and research on something of strong interest to you personally. Then if we all share what we’re learning about, I think we’ll learn more and it will be more meaningful. There are still some topics I plan to cover no matter what. For example, I have some readings and comments planned on the following topics:
- The Death of The American Dream (changes in wages, income inequality, and employment in the last 40 years)
- Government and Big Agriculture (how did that food really get to your table and what happened to people along the way – ties to the OneBookLCC for this year, Tomatoland)
- Immigration and Economies – How Does It Really Work?
- Crony Capitalism: It’s Good to Be Rich and Powerful
- Social Insurance Explained: Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, and Universal Healthcare
But the list is incomplete. That’s only five topics. I want to know what you want to study. Are you interested in healthcare? education? manufacturing? The role of military in the economy? Technology? Big data and privacy? Currency unions and banking? Government debt? You decide. You let me know in your first post or two. You’ll get to focus most of your own research, project, and in-depth postings on your topic and share what you’re learning with the rest of us. Then, if this all works, we’ll all learn even more by making connections between our own research/insights and that of our fellow students.
Oh, one more thing: You might want to check out the following website: Top 10 Reasons for Studying Economics. It’s a fun, tongue-in-cheek list of reasons to study econ from a British econ professor. Personally, I want all of you to take lots of economics courses (more work, income and job security for me!) but I don’t think you should actually grow up to be professional economists(I don’t need the competition!). Let’s have fun and learn something together.