Legacies of Great Economists

Course No. 528
Professor Timothy Taylor, M.Econ.
Macalester College
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Course No. 528
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Course Overview

When it comes to economics and economic theory, a few thinkers dominate the landscape. Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, and a handful of others have shaped the world of economics and influenced our lives. These lectures by Professor Timothy Taylor acquaint you with the thoughts, theories, and lives of those great economists, ranging from the predecessors of Adam Smith in the 18th century through 20th century giants like John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman.

Led by Professor Taylor, you grasp the guiding principles of economics through a better understanding of the economists who developed them.

A Firm Foundation of Core Doctrine

In this broad span of time since these thinkers first presented their ideas, economic issues and concerns have changed greatly—but core economic doctrine remains.

Of course, the foundation of that doctrine wasn't as well established or understood in the beginning as it is today.

These lectures provide a fresh take on how various economic theories were formed and how subsequent economists fine-tuned those theories.

They show that there are valuable lessons to be learned from history's great economists, whether their theories have held up over time, required revision, or been discredited in practice.

And as Professor Taylor leads you through those theories, you come away with insight about why some current disputes over economic policy have been continual sources of argument over the last several centuries.

Peer Into the Minds of Geniuses

By providing a glimpse into the minds of the geniuses who laid the foundations of modern economics, Professor Taylor offers new ideas and perspectives to enhance your understanding of the subject.

More than numbers and graphs, this series focuses on personalities and brings economics to life.

As you learn more about how these great economists formed their ideas, you gain a better grasp of the important economic principles that drive and shape our world.

What You Learn

Lecture 1 outlines the worthwhile reasons for studying past economists. Professor Taylor looks at the origins of economics from the Middle Ages up to the 17th century and focuses on the backgrounds, key figures, and impacts of the Mercantilists and the Physiocrats.

In this period prior to 1750, the beginning concepts of economics set the stage for Adam Smith.

Lecture 2 turns to a discussion of Smith and the birth of economics.

By examining Smith's building blocks for The Wealth of Nations, you begin to understand and appreciate the impact of such concepts as:

  • the division of labor
  • trade
  • the "invisible hand."

But Professor Taylor also looks at Smith's shortcomings (although they were few), and you examine his views on various economic issues that are still relevant today.

The lecture concludes with a summary of Smith's extraordinary qualities and his tremendous impact on economic thought.

Meet the " Dismal Science "

Lecture 3 introduces what we know as the "dismal science" and the work of Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo.

Professor Taylor leads you to an understanding of the theories of both men, including

  • Malthus's ideas about overpopulation, which he predicted would lead to famine if not restrained
  • Ricardo's ideas about inflation and the concept of comparative advantage as it related to international trade.

You learn that although these two men often disagreed on major economic issues, they were close friends, sustaining a long and fruitful discussion of economic and intellectual topics.

Lecture 4 deals with John Stuart Mill's extraordinary upbringing and his study of utilitarianism, which laid the foundation for his future thought.

You learn how this last great economist of the Classical School developed concepts we still study today, including:

  • supply and demand
  • economies of scale
  • international trade
  • government intervention.

Professor Taylor also discusses Mill's study of "economic man" before turning to his impact on both economics and economists.

An Evaluation of Marxist Economics

Lecture 5 looks at Karl Marx and the advent of socialism.

Professor Taylor discusses the Industrial Revolution and the utopians and scientific socialists who criticized its social consequences. He then turns to Marx's background, professional work, and thought in several areas, including:

  • the capitalist law of motion relating to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat
  • the labor theory of value
  • the exploitation of workers.

He concludes with an examination of how Marxist economics have stood the test of time, arguing that while Marx was a brilliant thinker whose ideas still resonate to this day, his scientific analysis of the economy has not held up.

Lecture 6 examines Alfred Marshall and marginalist thought.

This lecture begins with a discussion of how the marginalists revolutionized economics by using scientific concepts to better understand the concepts of supply and demand.

You also cover the key area of Marshall's background, and how it affected his economic thinking, before turning to his principles of economics.

You learn that Marshall focused on human behavior and developed a modern economic vocabulary.

Professor Taylor concludes with a look at Marshall's combination of neoclassical economics and social justice.

Lecture 7 examines the debate between the scientific socialists, led by Oskar Lange, and the Austrian school of economics, led by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.

Professor Taylor traces the development of both schools of thought and how they responded to each other and ends with a discussion of which side was the winner in this debate, including a surprising look at the important things they had in common.

Learn the Ideas Behind Entrepreneurialism

Lecture 8 introduces Joseph Schumpeter and the concept of entrepreneurialism.

Professor Taylor examines his ideas concerning the entrepreneur and innovation and the impact of entrepreneurship upon the business cycle before turning to Schumpeter's ideas about the viability of capitalism and socialism.

He concludes with a look at Schumpeter's legacy and its relation to both growth economics and socialism.

Lecture 9 is devoted to what Professor Taylor terms "the extremely busy life of John Maynard Keynes."

He begins with a discussion of Keynes's monumental General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

You learn that Keynes believed in economic progress in the long run and in the need for government to create demand to help the economy, and how Keynes altered economic thinking in several respects, including:

  • the negative aspects of saving
  • the importance of macroeconomic analysis
  • government's responsibility for the economy
  • the philosophy of correctable capitalism.

Lecture 10 completes the course with a discussion of Milton Friedman, his interest in statistics, and the rebirth of classical economics.

Professor Taylor looks at Friedman's work on the permanent income hypothesis and on far-sighted expectations, as well as his study on both monetary matters and history.

He concludes with a discussion of the many examples of Friedman's market-oriented thinking in everyday life, such as an all-volunteer army, flexible exchange rates, and school vouchers.

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10 lectures
 |  Average 44 minutes each
  • 1
    Before Economics—Mercantilists and Physiocrats
    Political figures, businessmen, and philosophers of the 16th and 17th centuries sought to harness economic forces to assure national strength. Their understanding of the issues was generally incomplete, and sometimes wrong-headed, but it formed the foundation for later economic thinking. x
  • 2
    Adam Smith and the Birth of Economics
    Adam Smith saw the free market as an interlocking system in which the selfish behavior of individuals is transformed by an "invisible hand" into social productivity. But Smith was no ideologue; in fact, he saw some limitations of free markets more clearly than many of his current admirers. x
  • 3
    The Dismal Science—Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo
    Robert Malthus is perhaps best known for his prediction that population would outstrip economic growth; David Ricardo for his theory of comparative advantage and trade. These two men, though best friends, completely disagreed on certain economic theories. x
  • 4
    John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism
    John Stuart Mill summarized and extended much of the economic thinking up to this time, including a nearly-modern theory of supply and demand. Even more important, he argued that while economics may be a necessary guide to the harsh realities of efficient production, society might choose to redistribute the fruits of that production in line with some conception of social justice. x
  • 5
    Karl Marx and Socialism
    Karl Marx gave voice to many fears about capitalism that still persist today: It will result in huge corporations, mass unemployment, inequality and poverty, technology that displaces jobs, swings into depression, and more. Although the flaws in his economic theories have become apparent with time, he set the groundwork for much of economic discussion over nearly a century. x
  • 6
    Alfred Marshall and Marginalist Thought
    The marginalists and Alfred Marshall brought mathematical rigor and clarity to economics. This helped clarify the meaning and strengths of economic theories—along with their limitations. x
  • 7
    The Socialist Calculation Debate
    In the first half of the 20th century, a debate raged between market socialists who argued that the principles of economics could best be implemented through an interventionist government, and Austrian economists who felt that an undisturbed market was a key to efficiency. The debate is echoed in current arguments over intervening in markets. x
  • 8
    Joseph Schumpeter and Entrepreneurialism
    Joseph Schumpeter emphasized the importance of entrepreneurs in a modern economy and offered a theory of business cycles. Unlike Marx, who believed capitalism would collapse because of its failures, Schumpeter believed capitalism would collapse from its successes. x
  • 9
    John Maynard Keynes and the Keynesian Revolution
    John Maynard Keynes offered a systematic description of why the market as a whole might break down into depression. But he also offered a set of policy tools and guidelines for letting the government intervene in the market, but only in dire straits. x
  • 10
    Milton Friedman and the Rebirth of Classical Economics
    Milton Friedman defends markets fiercely. In both microeconomic and macroeconomic arenas, he explained why, even when omniscient and instantaneous government intervention might theoretically help the economy, in the real world markets can have both practical and ethical advantages. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 52-page digital course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Glossary

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Your professor

Timothy Taylor

About Your Professor

Timothy Taylor, M.Econ.
Macalester College
Professor Timothy Taylor is Managing Editor of the prominent Journal of Economic Perspectives, published by the American Economic Association. He earned his Master's degree in Economics from Stanford University. Professor Taylor has won student-voted teaching awards for his Introductory Economics classes at Stanford University. At the University of Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of...
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Legacies of Great Economists is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 60.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Taylor knows his economists! Prof. Taylor has put together an informative course on the contributions and ideas of various influential economists throughout history. Taylor provides an in-depth overview of each thinker, and even if you are familiar with some of these economists I guarantee that you will still learn something new by taking this course. One unique aspect of the course is that the lectures run around 42-45 minutes, compared to the normal TGC lecture time of about 30 minutes. This extra runtime allows for a more in-depth discussion to occur (however I can see how the extra time could be a downside for some listeners). Anyone one who is interested in economics will like, or at least profit from, this course.
Date published: 2020-05-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Helped me understand I never took economics in college so many years ago and really didn't have a good grasp of the leading economists and their thoughts. Now my college-age grandchildren are asking questions I can't answer. This course helped me understand the thought process and evolution of economic theory. The course was enjoyable and easy to take. Now I am armed with sufficient information to deal with their questions. Thank you!
Date published: 2019-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing Course! This course provides a thorough and thematically appealing walkthrough of the history of economic thought. The professor is outstanding and very keen in his insights. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-01-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Men and their Thoughts I enjoyed learning something about the men (sorry, not a single woman in the group) who put forth the most important economic ideas of modern time. Knowing something about them, and the times in which they lived, helped me to better understand the origins of their economic philosophies. Of course the brevity of this series means that a deep review of their ideas is not possible. Nevertheless, the series is worthwhile, enjoyable, and recommended.
Date published: 2018-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun and informative! I thoroughly enjoyed this lecture series. I highly recommend this series to anyone who is interested in the great economic philosophers. My only negative comment is that it was too short.
Date published: 2018-06-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from the thread of economic thought I liked the one. Though I have not been drawn to economics courses I have discovered that "The Great Courses" does a fabulous job with this genre. This course is well worth the time. It ties together the thread of economic thought from mercantilism to the more modern ideas of Keynes and Friedman in a way that I found very illuminating. On the negative side, it starts out a little slow. Merchantalism is not an exhilarating economic perspective and the professor spends way too much time on "The Fable of the Bees". If he was trying to establish that mercantilist thought was lame then he succeeded. Lame or not, as Professor Taylor points out, mercantilism is still part of the dynamic today. Next comes Adam Smith, which is always the good stuff. It seems to me that Adam Smith and Karl Marx were the ones that moved the world. The rest are merely footnotes. I enjoyed the treatment of Marx as much as that of Adam Smith. But the connecting thread of economic thought really lies in those footnotes. Here I met people I did not know and people I knew but know them better now. For example I knew of the Malthusian postulate of population growth but never really thought of it as part of economics. I did know know of Alfred Marshall's enormous contributions at all. Keynes and Friedman were active in my economic fate. This course helped me to see them as part of the history of economic thought. Now, I think I will seek out my next economics course.
Date published: 2017-05-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Economics Yes, But What About Capitalism? I have mixed feelings about this course. It’s a good survey of the most important Anglo-American economists from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman and the famous Austrians Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter. It even includes Karl Marx and a couple of 20th century market socialists. The focus is on their ideas, as it should be, but you also learn a little about their personal backgrounds and relationships. For example, I had no idea that Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo were close friends as well as intellectual sparring partners. Yet Professor Taylor seems unduly dismissive of Marx and later socialists, and the biographical format means that he skips other important critiques of capitalism, especially firms’ tendency to dump costs onto other people or the natural world whenever possible, what economists call by the opaque term “externalities.” The premier case today is the fossil fuel industries’ contribution to manmade global warming, an issue facing the public even in 1996, when Taylor made this course. Another recent issue has been the growth of inequality and wealth since around 1980 with neoliberal globalization and financial deregulation. To be fair, though, the dot-com debacle in 1999-2001, the housing bubble collapse in 2007-09, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century were all in the future in 1996. Furthermore, economists seem completely oblivious to the mutual feedback between the concentration of wealth and political power, such as corporations’ ability to change market conditions by lobbying for subsidies, more lenient tax treatment, new regulation or deregulation, higher or lower tariffs, and changes to immigration standards. I am as much an economic individual as Microsoft or Goldman Sachs, but I won’t get the same level of attention from Congress. Of the many men covered in this course, only Karl Marx seems to have paid attention to the latter two problems, while only Thomas Malthus thought about the environment, and then only in terms of human population. Still, for what you pay for this audio download course, it is definitely a good buy, and I would recommend it.
Date published: 2017-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mercantilists to Milton (Friedman) audio download version I missed economics pretty much completely during my long-ago academic career, considering it to be uninteresting. True enough I could toss out names like Adam Smith during social conservation, but really had little understanding of what he, or others wrote and why. Thanks to Professor Taylor I now have the beginnings of understanding of economic theory over time and why thinking has changed according to the times. Professor Taylor presents this wide view of economics by discussing important economists and their ideas in an engaging fashion. His enthusiasm for the subject and the personalities is obvious and contributes in no small way to to making a dry subject entertaining. I really did not detect too much bias in his presentation, but I was left to wonder if this course was updated, would he have included Paul Krugman as advancing economic theory? Highly recopmmended
Date published: 2016-12-03
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