Note: It goes without saying that this syllabus is subject to change based on changes in University policies during the semester.
About the Course
Economics is a way of looking at the world — a lens, you might say. Economists see economic phenomena, and economic lessons, everywhere. So it shouldn’t be surprising that motion pictures are full of economic phenomena and economic ideas. This course will use movies as a way to introduce you to some of the basic concepts in economics and to evaluate critically how those concepts are embodied in specific movies. By the end of the course, you should have a good sense of what economics is and how economists think about the world. There may even be lessons for your own life along the way. After you’ve spent some time in the course, you may decide you really like Economics and want to take more of it — maybe even to major or minor in Economics. Students usually start out by taking Economics 1201 (microeconomics) and 1202 (macroeconomics), which are the prerequisites for upper-division courses in the major and also fulfill requirements in the Business School and elsewhere. Alternatively, you can take Econ 1200, which is a four-credit course that covers much the same material as 1201 and 1202 (both macro and micro) in a single semester. Econ 1200 fulfills all the same requirements as taking both ECON 1201 and 1202. For more information about Economics as major (or minor), click here.
Course Format and Requirements
We will watch 12 movies over the course of the semester. Each movie will raise a set of specific economic issues and illustrate specific economic concepts.
Here’s how it will work: Each class will consist of a lecture/discussion of the previous week’s movie, followed by a showing of a new movie.
Over the course of the semester, you will write six short reaction papers of two or three pages (double spaced) each in response to a prompt about a movie. I have randomly broken the class into two groups, so you will be assigned a movie to write about roughly every two weeks. This means you will write a paper about six of the 12 movies – but be sure to watch and think about all the movies. This is a course about how movies use and illustrate economic ideas, not a course about literary criticism or cinema as an art form; but you are welcome to think about the literary and cultural aspects of the movies in your papers, at least so long as you also talk about economics. This is not a W course, so you will not be graded on the writing per se — but part of what you will be graded on is the argument you make and how well you make it. You might want to look at my Notes on Writing and the resources there. You will upload your papers in the assignments area of the “My Groups” link of HuskyCT. They will be due just before the start of the class during which we discuss the movie you will have written about. The papers will be worth eight points each, amounting to 48 per cent of your grade.
The rest of your grade will be based on two multiple-choice exams. The first will take place in class on Wednesday, October 20. The second will be the final exam, which will take place in class at the official final exam time assigned by the Registrar. Although you will take the exams in class, you will take them in HuskyCT — so you need to bring a suitable device with you. It is possible to take the exams on a phone or tablet, but I strongly recommend bringing a laptop.
The midterm will cover material through the movie 42: the Jackie Robinson Story. The final will be cumulative, but will stress the material after the midterm. The exams will test your knowledge of the economic concepts we talk about in class, not just of the content of the movies. The midterm will be worth 25 per cent of your grade and the final 27 per cent.
There is no textbook for the course, but I have asked the bookstore to order Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 3rd Edition, by Charles Wheelan. It is available cheaply on kindle. This is a breezy overview of basic ideas in economics. I will not refer to it (much) in class, but you should plan to read it as early in the course as you can, as it will help you understand the economics behind the movies. There may be a few questions on the exams that refer to this book. For each movie the syllabus links to short videos that go over important concepts and substitute for a textbook. There are also readings of various kinds, from articles in the New York Times to professional journal articles in economics to original writings by major historical figures, including Adam Smith, Louis Brandeis, and John Maynard Keynes. I don’t expect you to master the more difficult readings, and you won’t be tested on them. But I do expect you to look at them and grapple with them.
Course Grading Summary
Six reaction papers
Introduction to the course and to economics.
Screening: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
- Rationality versus “greed.”
- Institutions: trust.
- Institutions: property rights.
- Institutions: violence as dispute resolution.
- Productive vs. unproductive rent seeking.
- Video: The Importance of Institutions.
- Video: The Economics of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
- Robert Whaples, “Ten Economic Lessons from the Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” The Independent Review 18(3): 441-452 (Winter 2014).
- Andrea G. McDowell, “From Commons to Claims: Property Rights in the California Gold Rush,” Yale Journal of Law & Humanities 14(1): 1-72 (2002).
Discuss The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Screening: Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
- Gains from trade.
- Opportunity cost.
- Institutions: Illegal markets.
- “Repugnant” transactions.
- Economics of Immigration.
- Video: The Big Ideas of Trade.
- Video: What Is Opportunity Cost?
- Video: Gains from Trade.
- Video: Should You Be Allowed to Buy or Sell Your Kidney?
- Video: Bryan Caplan on Open Borders.
- Philip J. Cook and Kimberly D. Krawiec, “If We Pay Football Players, Why Not Kidney Donors?” Regulation, Spring 2018, pp. 12-17.
- Henry Hansmann, “The Economics and Ethics of Markets for Human Organs,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law 14(1): 57-85 (October 1989).
- Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, Markets without Limits. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Discuss Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
Screening: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).
- Supply and demand.
- Demand shifters: information and tastes.
- Entrepreneurship and innovation — 1950s corporate edition.
- Video: The Demand Curve
- Video: Demand, Part 1
- Video: Demand, Part 2
- Video: Demand Curve Shifts
- Video: The Economics of the Hudsucker Proxy.
- Douglas Martin, “Richard Knerr, 82, Craze Creator, Dies,” The New York Times, January 18, 2008.
Discuss The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).
Screening: The Founder (2016).
- Innovation: the reverse Schumpeterian hypothesis.
- Costs and production technology.
- The division of labor.
- Video: Burgers and the Division of Labor
- Willy Staley, “22 Hours in Balthazar,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2013.
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), Book I, Chapters I-III.
- Axel Leijonhufvud, “Capitalism and the Factory System,” in R. N. Langlois, ed., Economic as a Process: Essays in the New Institutional Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Discuss The Founder (1994).
Screening: Moneyball (2011).
- Profit maximization.
- Marginal product of labor.
- Measurement costs.
- Video: The Marginal Product of Labor.
- Video: The labor market.
- J.C. Bradbury, “A Sports Economist’s Thoughts on Moneyball,” Freakonomics Blog, September 26, 2011.
Discuss Moneyball (2011).
Screening: 42 (2013).
- Markets and discrimination.
- Video: The Marginal Product of Labor.
- Video: The labor market. (View from 15:00.)
- Kevin J. Murphy, “How Gary Becker Saw the Scourge of Discrimination,” Chicago Booth Review, June 15, 2015.
- Christopher J. Coyne, Justin P. Isaacs, and Jeremy T. Schwartz, “Entrepreneurship and the Taste for Discrimination,” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 20: 609–627 (2010).
Discuss 42 (2013).
Screening: Dr. Strangelove (1964).
- Game Theory.
- Credible threats and self-binding.
- Video: Game Theory.
- Video: Making Threats Credible.
- William Grimes, “Thomas C. Schelling, Master Theorist of Nuclear Strategy, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, December 13, 2016.
- Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
- Roger B. Myerson, “Learning from Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict,” Journal of Economic Literature 47(4): 1109-125 (2009).
Midterm exam (through 42: the Jackie Robinson Story).
Discuss Dr. Strangelove (1964).
Screening: The Wizard of Oz (1939).
- What is money?
- The quantity theory of money.
- Inflation, deflation, and hyperinflation.
- The gold standard.
- Video: What Is Money?
- Video: Quantity Theory of Money
- Video: Causes of Inflation
- Video: Inflation, Deflation, Hyperinflation
- Hugh Rockoff, “The ‘Wizard of Oz’ as a Monetary Allegory,” The Journal of Political Economy 98(4): 739-760 (August 1990).
- “U.S. Economy Grinds to Halt as Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion,” The Onion, February 16, 2010.
- Amy B Wang, “‘They’ll Kill for It’: Ramen Has Become the Black-market Currency in American Prisons,” The Washington Post, August 23, 2016.
Discuss The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Screening: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
- Financial intermediation.
- Fractional-reserve banking.
- Trust and expectations.
- The Great Depression.
- Video: What Do Banks Do?
- Video: Fractional-Reserve Banking
- Video: Four Reasons Financial Intermediaries Fail
- Video: The Great Depression
- Video: The Economics of It’s a Wonderful Life.
- Sebastián Fleitas, Price Fishback, and Kenneth Snowden, “Forbearance by Contract: How Building and Loans Mitigated the Mortgage Crisis of the 1930s,” Working Paper 21786, National Bureau of Economic Research (December 2015). This is a wonky but not-too-technical discussion of the kind of institution in the movie — a Building and Loan, not an ordinary commercial bank.
Discuss It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Screening: Other People’s Money (1991).
- Debt (bonds and loans) versus equity (stocks).
- Corporate governance.
- The market for corporate control.
- Video: Intro to Stock Markets
- Video: Financial Markets.
- Henry Hansmann, “Ownership of the Firm,” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 4(2): 267-304 (Fall 1988).
- Louis D. Brandeis, Other People’s Money. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1914.
- Michael C. Jensen, “Takeovers: Folklore and Science,” Harvard Business Review, November-December, 1984.
Discuss Other People’s Money (1991).
Screening: The Big Short (2015).
- Financial markets and securities.
- Bubbles vs. market fundamentals.
- Short selling.
- 2008 financial crisis.
- Video: Speculation
- Video: The Great Recession.
- Video: Free Investment advice
- Video: Raghuram Rajan on the causes of the financial crisis.
- Reading: Raghuram G. Rajan, Fault Lines, Princeton University Press, 2010.
Discuss The Big Short (2015).
Screening: Wall-E (2015).
Part I: The environment.
- The Tragedy of the Commons.
- Institutions and environmental protection.
- Video: The Tragedy of the Commons
- Video: Externalities, Incentives, and Institutions.
- Video: Public Goods and Common Resources.
- Video: The Economics of Wall-E.
- Jake Halpern, “The Big Business of Scavenging in Postindustrial America,” The New York Times Magazine, August 21, 2019.
- Antón Chamberlin and Walter E. Block, “Review: Wall-E,” Cosmos + Taxis 6(6+7): 68-72 (2019).
- Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Penguin, 2018, Chapter 10: the Environment.
- Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends.
- David Leonhardt, “The Problem With Putting a Price on the End of the World,” The New York Times Magazine, April 9, 2019.
Part II: Economic growth and automation.
- Economic Growth.
- Automation and technological unemployment.
- Video: The Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity.
- Video: Economic Growth
- Video: “Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu.”
- Video: Will Machines Take Our Jobs?
- John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930), in Essays in Persuasion. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932, pp. 358-373 .
- Richard N. Langlois, “Cognitive Comparative Advantage and the Organization of Work,” Journal of Economic Psychology 24: 187-207 (2003).
Discuss Wall-E (2015).
Summary and overview of what we’ve learned.
My office hours are Wednesdays 9:00 to 11:00 or by appointment. I am also around other times, and I can usually talk for a while after class.
Office hours will take place in the class’s Blackboard Collaborate room — the same place you will watch the movies. Best to email me to set up a time to talk.
Talk to me if you have any problems or questions about the class. Also feel free to talk to me about other things, including economics or academics generally.
Resources for Students Experiencing Distress
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You are responsible for acting in accordance with the University of Connecticut’s Student Code Review and become familiar with these expectations. In particular, make sure you have read the section that applies to you on Academic Integrity:
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Academic Support Resources
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