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Modern Economic Issues

Modern Economic Issues

Professor Robert Whaples Ph.D.
Wake Forest University

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Modern Economic Issues

Modern Economic Issues

Professor Robert Whaples Ph.D.
Wake Forest University
Course No.  5610
Course No.  5610
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

How do the major economic issues that dominate today's news—questions about gross domestic product or budget deficits or trade imbalances—impact the average citizen? Why are health insurance and college tuition increasingly expensive? What can be done about soaring energy prices?

In Modern Economic Issues, Professor Robert Whaples has crafted a course designed to answer just these sorts of questions—a primer in 21st-century economics for the non-economist. He first presents the results of a survey of professional economists around the country on what they consider today's most urgent economic issues—the ones all of us most need to understand. Professor Whaples then puts his award-winning teaching skills to work to shape an accessible course, explaining not only those urgent issues but also the raw data economists use to describe their shape and impact.

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How do the major economic issues that dominate today's news—questions about gross domestic product or budget deficits or trade imbalances—impact the average citizen? Why are health insurance and college tuition increasingly expensive? What can be done about soaring energy prices?

In Modern Economic Issues, Professor Robert Whaples has crafted a course designed to answer just these sorts of questions—a primer in 21st-century economics for the non-economist. He first presents the results of a survey of professional economists around the country on what they consider today's most urgent economic issues—the ones all of us most need to understand. Professor Whaples then puts his award-winning teaching skills to work to shape an accessible course, explaining not only those urgent issues but also the raw data economists use to describe their shape and impact.

The result is a course that finally makes the connection between the economics you may have studied in school and the economics of the lives we experience every day.

For example, how do you make the decisions—big and small—that make up your daily life?

What factors come into play when you're deciding whether to buy this car or that one, or even commute by bus? Mow the lawn or take a nap? Grill a burger with a bubbling slice of cheese or eat a simple salad?

Most economists will tell you that you make decisions on this personal level by acting as what they would call a "rational maximizer," comparing, whether explicitly or implicitly, what you expect to gain from your decision against what you expect to give up.

You weigh comfort and convenience against the rising cost of gasoline. The need to maintain your home's "curb appeal" against your need for sleep in a much-too-busy life. Your raw craving for that burger against the realities of an expanding waistline.

Learn to See the Tradeoffs in Every Decision We Make

And make no mistake about it: There is almost always something to give up, a tradeoff that is inherent in every decision we make in life—a concept memorably expressed by Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman's famous reminder that "there's no such thing as a free lunch."

But this same kind of personal analysis is just as applicable to the major issues of public policy, where the needs and wants of a nation and its people—whether financial security, safety from terrorism, or even an available kidney for someone desperately waiting on a transplant list—involve tradeoffs. Tradeoffs that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not.

Issue by issue, Professor Whaples explains those tradeoffs, guiding you through and then past the numbers, teasing out the full range of differing societal costs and benefits that will be part and parcel of any policy option our leaders choose to implement.

What does it mean, for example, if Wal-Mart decides to open a store in your town? Should your local government be enthusiastic, or should it be concerned? Should your own feelings be the same, or are your personal priorities different? What will the presence of the world's largest corporation really mean to you as a consumer, to smaller stores worried about competing, or to your local job market?

Whether dealing with the traditional sorts of topics most of us are used to seeing in an economics course—Social Security, inflation, unemployment, immigration, taxation, and the like—or issues perhaps surprising, such as gambling, major sports franchises, and even overeating, Professor Whaples offers a steady flow of insights about how the American economy really works, and how the consequences of policy decisions can have a longer reach than we might imagine, sometimes ironically so.

For example, Americans are having far fewer children than we used to—the so-called "birth dearth"—because the Social Security safety net removed one of the reasons cited by economic historians for having large families in the first place: the need to be supported in one's later years.

The irony, of course, is that it is this very decline in births that Social Security helped bring about that has itself become a looming threat, with a dwindling number of adults in their working years now available to support the increasing number of retirees who will be dependent on the system.

Go Beyond the "What" to Explore the "Why" of Today's Most Important Economic Issues

Carefully balancing the statistical data—the "what" of each trend or issue—with insightful explorations of how those trends or issues took their present shape—the "why"—Professor Whaples repeatedly takes the numbers that have long been the bane of those intimidated by economics courses and explores their implications in very human terms.

Showing us the human side of the numbers with which economics must be unavoidably concerned is second nature to Professor Whaples, who earned degrees in both economics and history in the process of becoming an economic historian. Honored as both a scholar and a teacher, he is intimately concerned with the real-life consequences of economics for flesh-and-blood people. In fact, his 1990 doctoral dissertation on the shortening of the American workweek was written from both economic and historical perspectives, and was honored by the Economic History Association as the "Outstanding Dissertation in American Economic History" for that year.

Professor Whaples begins the course with a thorough grounding in the basics of economics and the most important measuring sticks by which professional economists gauge an economy's performance. He always moves toward the human side of the equation, letting us see the translation of basic economic forces into the realities of our own lives.

The first lecture is a typical example of his approach. Terms such as rational maximizer, marginal cost, and demand curve fall neatly into place within the real-life example of padding over to one's thermostat on a cold winter's morning to decide where to set it, gauging where the cost–benefit tradeoffs might be—a process very similar to the one being performed at the other end of this transaction, by the marketplace players that provide our heating fuel.

As Professor Whaples so brilliantly shows, tradeoffs are a fundamental part of a system of economic forces that has been in play since long before the word economics even existed, from the moment the first want had to be balanced against the first inventory of resources, forcing someone to make a choice.

Modern Economic Issues is also about the economic implications of making those choices at the level of public policy. By showing the full range of economic factors that can come into play as a result of a given policy, and how our economy works, this course can help you become an even more insightful judge of policy recommendations and of the leaders and policy makers who advocate them.

Moreover, you will understand how professional economists view the full range of tradeoffs inherent in any decision. And you may well learn to supplement your own analyses as you make the real-life economic choices each of us faces every day, becoming an even wiser consumer and manager of your own economic future.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    What Economists Know about Economic Policy
    We introduce the course's basic structure and explore the grounding of economics in the concepts of scarcity, tradeoffs, and efficiency—and the operation of the marketplace. x
  • 2
    Economy Up or Down? How to Tell
    We look at several ways economists evaluate economic health and performance, and the problems some critics have with key indicators such as unemployment, inflation, and gross domestic product. x
  • 3
    Economists' View of the Future
    Will future generations live in a better world, or will things fall apart? This lecture explains the forces pushing long-term economic growth, and outlines the main hazards to the smooth economic sailing that economists foresee. x
  • 4
    Productivity and Productivity Growth
    The key to growth in an economy is growth in productivity. We look at how this happens, and note some recent trends, before concluding with some key policy questions: How can we boost productivity growth? Is it worth the trouble? x
  • 5
    Inflation—Why the Measure Matters
    We explore how inflation is measured and the problems that inflation or deflation can cause and examine the underlying causes, before turning to economists' thoughts about what policy makers ought to do. x
  • 6
    Unemployment—A Global Perspective
    How is the unemployment rate measured? Who is more likely to be unemployed? This lecture discusses the tradeoffs involved in various policies designed to influence the unemployment rate. x
  • 7
    Economic Inequality
    Economic inequality is higher in the United States than in many other economically advanced nations. We look at why and explore the lack of consensus on how to reduce inequality. x
  • 8
    The Fallacy of Trade Barriers
    Building on insights first put forth by Adam Smith, this lecture explores why 92 percent of economists in a recent survey agreed that barriers to trade "usually reduce the general welfare of a society," and why such barriers have nevertheless persisted. x
  • 9
    Trade Imbalances and Saving
    We confront another worry many people have about international trade: Why does the United States seem to chronically run up huge trade deficits? Our task will be to understand what has caused such deficits and what can and should be done about them. x
  • 10
    Budget Deficits—Past, Present, and Future
    Combined federal, state, and local government spending in the United States exceeds the gross domestic product of every other country in the world, leaving annual budget deficits that usually run into the hundreds of billion of dollars. x
  • 11
    Taxes and the Income Tax Code
    This lecture examines the primary sources and types of taxes used in the United States, and then it considers principles of efficient and fair taxation developed by economists. x
  • 12
    Rx for Social Security
    Critics complain that Social Security is a poor investment that will not be able to pay off on its current promises, that it depresses savings, and that it systematically shortchanges certain groups. We look at each of these criticisms and examine proposals to overhaul the system. x
  • 13
    Economic Answers for an Aging Population
    According to a survey of professional economists, the greatest challenges that Americans face in the future are tied to aging. We look at the many factors that come into play, including not only the Social Security funding gap but also productivity, innovation, and savings. x
  • 14
    Financing World-class Health Care
    Only a fifth of Americans think our health system works well. In this lecture we examine the successes of this system and explore the root causes of inefficiencies in the health care industry. x
  • 15
    Supply, Demand, and the Future of Oil
    Is there any way to insulate ourselves from price swings and dependence on foreign oil? Is there any effective way to pull down the price of energy? This lecture examines these crucial questions. x
  • 16
    Pollution—Tax or Trade?
    Reducing pollution levels has obvious benefits, but it also has costs. Though cleaning up our atmosphere certainly has been worthwhile, there are many cases of misallocated resources at the margin. We look at economists' preferred solutions to the problem of pollution. x
  • 17
    Global Climate Change—Costs and Benefits
    This lecture considers the likely economic impact of rising levels of greenhouse gases—which most economists believe will be surprisingly small—and explores the economic tradeoffs inherent in any good solution to pollution and climate change. x
  • 18
    Minimum Wage and the Poverty Rate
    This first labor-market-oriented lecture begins by reviewing how wage rates are determined, before turning to a pro-and-con exploration of the important public policy initiative of raising the minimum wage. x
  • 19
    It Pays to Be Married
    Though average incomes in the United States are about the highest in the world, 37 million Americans still live below the official poverty line. This lecture explores the nuances of how poverty rates are determined and what prevents them from falling, examines the impact of marriage, and considers ways of combating poverty. x
  • 20
    Pay Gaps by Sex and Race
    Pay gaps in the United States are present virtually everywhere. This lecture explores economists' understanding of pay gap disparities not only along gender lines, but also along racial and ethnic lines. x
  • 21
    Economic Impact of Immigration
    This lecture begins with changes in the economic characteristics of immigrants coming to the United States, then moves on to the central question in the current immigration debate: How do immigrants affect the labor market and government expenditures? x
  • 22
    Labor Unions in Contemporary Economics
    We examine the historical and current role of labor unions in the U.S. economy, including their impact on compensation, productivity, investment, profits, and job satisfaction, before closing with a brief discussion of recent proposals to change laws affecting organized labor. x
  • 23
    Productivity Trends in Schools
    Though economists anticipate a bright future, they do spot a few clouds on the horizon, including the challenge that is the focus of this lecture: an underperforming educational system that has been the focus of many conflicting suggestions for reform. x
  • 24
    Higher Education—Supply and Demand
    The good news is that American universities are the best in the world. The bad news is that they are also expensive, with tuition continuing to soar. This lecture explores the factors behind exploding tuition levels. x
  • 25
    Wal-Mart and Productivity Growth
    Wal-Mart is the world's largest corporation, yet in recent years it has become a dirty word in some circles. This lecture uses the tools of economics to examine how the chain's presence affects consumers, competitors, labor, and suppliers. x
  • 26
    Corporate Governance in a Strong Economy
    Not all companies have been as successful as most economists would consider Wal-Mart to be. Management all too often crosses the line and breaks the law. We look at the dark side of corporate life and how it affects our economy. x
  • 27
    Zero-Sum Game of Conspicuous Consumption
    Contemporary critics argue that the quest for status through what economist Thorstein Veblen a century ago labeled "conspicuous consumption" is a zero-sum game, wastes resources, and is a sign of an inefficient economy. This lecture examines this argument and considers what might be done. x
  • 28
    Economic Upside of Postal Reforms
    Do the problems of the U.S. Postal Service actually arise from its unique monopoly position? This lecture explores the history of the Postal Service and its performance history, and it closes by looking at different approaches from around the world. x
  • 29
    Is Everything a Commodity?
    At their best, competitive markets can make for the most efficient allocation of resources. But where should we set their boundaries? Case in point: Thousands die each year waiting for organ transplants, but is paying people for organ donations a good solution? x
  • 30
    Economics of the Baseball Industry
    This lecture examines whether or not the presence of professional sports franchises justifies publicly subsidized stadiums, before moving on to a closer look at Major League Baseball in general. x
  • 31
    Examining Economic Response to Terrorism
    What are the short- and long-term impacts of terrorism on an economy? We look at the relationship between the two and consider ways to reduce terrorism, including a controversial proposal to establish a market to predict terrorist events. x
  • 32
    Helping Poor Countries
    Two centuries after the dawn of the era of modern economic growth, a number of regions have been left behind. This lecture examines the magnitude of their poverty, economists' understanding of why they have failed to prosper, and what might be done to change things. x
  • 33
    Upsides and Downsides of Urban Sprawl
    We look at urban sprawl, beginning with how it is measured and the primary factors believed to cause it. In asking whether urban sprawl is ultimately good or bad, we close by considering the wisest policies to adopt in the face of evidence about its mixed impact. x
  • 34
    Economic Costs and Benefits of Gambling
    What is the impact of casinos on consumer well-being, employment, and income levels? We try to determine whether or not casinos are a useful economic development tool, and consider ways to reduce the substantial social costs gambling can also generate. x
  • 35
    Economists’ View of Overeating
    While overeating may not seem an economic issue, most economists believe it is. We explore the economic forces that explain why Americans and people around the world have gotten heavier, the costs this imposes, and public policies that might address the problem. x
  • 36
    American Economy in the 21st Century
    We look at questions raised by these lectures, and conclude by recapping the most important points of the course and the most important advice economists have offered on the key challenges facing the American economy, now and in the future. x

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Robert Whaples
Ph.D. Robert Whaples
Wake Forest University
Dr. Robert Whaples is Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University. He earned a double B.A. in Economics and History from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Whaples is the director of EH.Net (http://www.eh.net), which operates the Economic History Services website to provide resources and promote communication among scholars in economic history and related fields and to make research in economic history accessible to the worldwide public. He edits EH.Net's book review series and is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Economic and Business History. His Ph.D. dissertation, ìThe Shortening of the American Work Week: An Economic and Historical Analysis of Its Context, Causes and Consequences,î was awarded the Allen Nevins Prize for the Outstanding Dissertation in American Economic History by the Economic History Association. In 1999 he won the Economic History Association's Jonathan Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching Economic History.
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Reviews

Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 57 reviewers.
Rated 3 out of 5 by "Modern" It's Not This is a very well designed and delivered course. The speaker is engaging and conversational. BUT, this course is from around 2007 and it's amazing how many things are no longer correct. Some examples: - a whole course on what we can do about the healthcare industry, insurance issues etc - pre obamacare - a reference to Circuit City as a well run modern company - of course they went out of business - references to a recent survey of economists who think the US will have strong growth for years to come, of course he says unless there is a world-wide economic meltdown - pre worldwide economic meltdown - references to how the US unemployment is in great shape and lower than most rich countries There were places I laughed out loud. Honestly, Great Courses, this course is past its usefulness. You should just take it down. November 22, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by Slightly flawed This course pretty much mirrors Timothy Taylor's full economics course and suffers some of the same problems--the chief being that it was done before the 2008 recession. Here I think the complexities are presented well (better than in the Taylor course) with the sharp splits in economic opinions well detailed. The one part I found very lacking though was his lecture on energy. Trying to give a concrete example he goes into detail concerning drilling in Alaska versus increasing fuel mileage. Unfortunately he uses faulty data ignoring light trucks and SUVs that make up 40% of the vehicles and TOTALLY ignores population increase during the time it would take to increase the mileage numbers. When talking about the economics of drilling he seems to give no weight to the security aspect of domestic resources and despite earlier concerns about balance of trade, they are absent here. Still, I think just getting a good view of all sides on most of the issues is very worthwhile. April 6, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by decent course I liked this course a great deal. The only reason I did not give it 5 stars was because I didn't really hear much that was new to me. I have listened to other TC courses on economics and this one compares well with the others. I have seen two complaints of this course. One was that a listener did not like the professor constantly quoting from surveys of economists about this or that point. He does do that often but that really didn't bother me that much. I thought he was just demonstrating that whatever point he was making was either in the mainstream of economic opinion or not. That way, you would have some perspective on what he was saying. The other complaint from another listener was they disagreed with the professor's philosophy since the professor seems to be from the free market Chicago School. Well, I like the Chicago School so the points he made resonated with me and made sense. His quoting of surveys of other economists also pointed out that his was not some lone opinion but many of his peers agreed with him. Overall, it is a good course and if you are not familiar with economics you will learn a lot. November 14, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by As good as the "dismal science" gets "I gave this course 5 stars because, for economics, it held my attention very well and I enjoyed all that I learned. I usually listen to TGC history lectures and have found some of the technical science and business courses difficult to plow through. They can be especially hard to follow if you are exercising while listening. But not this one, I loved it. There are a few things you need to know: It was produced in 2007, so the data used is 2006 or older. But all the points are still valid. On one hand it was interesting to see his rosy perspective 1 year before the economy tanked. But an updated version of this course would be more relevant. The course should be titled "Modern American Economic Issues" as the lecture topics were all framed from the reference point of the USA. I liked this aspect, but if you want a world view you might be disappointed. There are a lot of statistics and other numbers thrown at you. This can be difficult to follow, especially while exercising. But don't get caught up in all of the numbers just follow the point the numbers will illustrate. Professor Whaples is funny at times and always to the point. He clearly states the lecture objectives and then gives ample data from research and survey results to back his statements. He is unbiased and tells the few times when something is his own opinion. He made 18 hours of economics as fun as I think it could be. After listening to this course though, it is sad to see where the USA is headed in 2013. Our politicians should all be required to listen to this course. The basic economic principles taught are not usually put into public policy as our political leaders pander to special interests and doing what is popular (entitlements) instead of what is economically sound (but tough to sell). It will be interesting to see when the house of cards starts to really shake and 2008 happens again, but probably worse this time around. As we continue to march towards European socialism I am sure that stagnation, instead of growth, will be the new norm. As professor Whaples states: "When you cut up the economic pie to redistribute it more evenly, the size of the pie shrinks." February 3, 2013
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