A detailed description of the course and a promotional video are at the company's website here. But for a brief overview, it's an economics course that barely (if at all) mentions recession, unemployment, inflation, budget deficits, international trade, poverty, monopoly, financial crises, and all the other standby topics of the standard intro economics class. Instead, there are lectures on the economics of religion, crime, obesity, natural disasters, cooperation, addition, charity, and other subjects. A list of the lectures with capsule descriptions is at the bottom of this post.
For professional economists, nothing in the list of topics will be especially "unexpected": economists will know that many well-known and even Nobel laureate economists have worked on these issues. But the economic perspective on these subjects is likely to be unexpected, and therefore potentially illuminating (or sometimes infuriating?) for many others.
For those who somehow aren't on the mailing list to get the Teaching Company catalogs, the company focuses on what I'd call serious education for generalists. Courses are often fairly long: my "Unexpected Economics" class is 24 half-hour lectures. Some previous courses I've done for them, like my course on "America and the Global Economy" and the basic "Economics" course, are both 36 half-hour lectures.The courses presume no background at all in the subject, but they do presume that the listener has the patience to follow along and give you the space develop your topic.
I recorded my first course for the Teaching Company back in 1994. The courses that I've recorded for them that are presently available, with links to the Teaching Company websites, include:
- Economics: An Introduction (third edition);
- America and the New Global Economy;
- Legacies of the Great Economists (audio only);
- History of the U.S. Economy in the 20th Century (audio only).
For some history of the Teaching Company and a sympathetic view of it mission, Heather MacDonald wrote an overview in the Summer 2011 issue of City Journal, "Great Courses, Great Profits."
Here's the list of titles and capsule descriptions for the 24 lectures of "Unexpected Economics":
1. The World of Choices
In this introductory lecture, encounter a definition of economics far broader than the one understood by most people. Also, learn that economics is about the choices you make in every aspect of life, their consequences, and the degree to which the realm of choice itself is larger than you would think.
2. A Market for Pregnancy
History demonstrates that most people are creatures of their own time in terms of what they will accept as appropriate economic transactions. Focus on three once-banned examples now seen as partly or completely ordinary: interest payments, life insurance, and the so-called "baby market."
3. Selling a Kidney
The discussion of forbidden transactions continues with a provocative look at the controversy over the buying and selling of human organs like kidneys or livers. No matter where you stand on the issue, this consideration of benefits and costs offers a fresh perspective from which to consider your views of medicine and longevity.
4. Traffic Congestion—Costs, Pricing, and You
Can economic analysis do anything about traffic? This free-wheeling examination of the choices that produce both the problem and solution reveals an example of the "tragedy of the commons" and looks at how the city of London addressed the issue with a strategy of "congestion pricing."
5. Two-Way Ties between Religion and Economics
Although links between religion and economics may seem counterintuitive to many, the possibility has interested economists ever since the work of Adam Smith. This lecture explores how several different aspects of religion may in fact contribute to the underpinnings of the real-world economy.
6. Prediction Markets—Windows on the Future
Can the likelihood of a future event be predicted? If so, how? Plunge into the world of prediction markets, where people place bets on what will happen, and get some surprising answers—in areas that include elections, Oscar winners, and the performance of new products.
7. Pathways for Crime and Crime Fighting
Step beyond the traditional nature-versus-nurture argument about the causes of crime to examine the problem from an economic perspective. Grasp how incentives and tradeoffs affect the decisions of both criminals and law enforcement and how policymakers might better take them into account.
8. Terrorism as an Occupational Choice
Is there a causal relationship between poverty and terrorism, or a pathway to terrorism originating in a lack of education? Discover some surprising answers as you turn your attention to the choices and incentives economists find when examining how terrorism and its practitioners find each other.
9. Marriage as a Search Market
By looking at the many factors that go into marriage—from the "market" where people find their spouses to the forces that influence their choices about remaining together or splitting apart—you'll gain fresh insight into why marriage patterns have shifted so dramatically.
10. Procreation and Parenthood
Beginning with the work of Thomas Malthus, explore the many ways in which our child-bearing patterns have changed, including a current theory that actually sees children as a kind of luxury good, where an increase in income translates into an even higher investment in one's children.
11. Small Choices and Racial Discrimination
Take a close look at how discrimination against African Americans manifests itself in various markets. Learn about the different analytical perspectives set forth by economists like Becker, Schelling, and Arrow; the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and three different approaches to achieving equality.
12. Cooperation and the Prisoner's Dilemma
A discussion of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma and its application to the market economy leads to a surprising conclusion: Competition and cooperation are not opposites. Instead, they are interlocking, with market competition the ultimate example of socially cooperative behavior.
13. Fairness and the Ultimatum Game
Turn your focus to the world of "laboratory economics," where game exercises like the "ultimatum game," "dictator," "punishment," "trust," "gift exchange," and others help cast fresh light on key aspects of economic behavior. Learn how perceived fairness and other motivating factors can affect real-life markets.
14. Myopic Preferences and Behavioral Economics
Myopia can refer to more than eyesight. Grasp the impact of setting aside the long-term view in favor of the shorter one, a pattern whose consequences can be seen not only in personal finance, but in health care, time management, and many other aspects of behavior.
15. Altruism, Charity, and Gifts
Is charity always altruistic, or is giving really motivated by disguised self-interest? Examine the many possible motivations for charity, societal steps to support it, and the imbalances that occur when a recipient's valuation of a gift is markedly different from that of the giver.
16. Loss Aversion and Reference Point Bias
How a choice is framed significantly affects which alternative is chosen, even when either will produce identical results. Grasp why this is so through concepts like loss aversion and reference dependence, and see how public "nudge" policies might be used to influence those choices.
17. Risk and Uncertainty
An eye-opening exploration of how economists see risk introduces behavioral descriptions like risk-neutral, risk-seeking, and risk-averse, along with the most useful way to realistically evaluate probabilities and make decisions. Learn how this knowledge factors into public policy subjects like energy and finance.
18. Human Herds and Information Cascades
Most of us understandably "run with the herd" when making decisions outside our personal expertise. Although this often leads to correct choices, it can also draw us astray. Learn the dangers of "information cascades" and how to avoid joining herds headed in disastrous directions.
19. Addiction and Choice
In a provocative examination of a controversial subject, learn how some economists have analyzed drug addiction as a chosen behavior—and therefore subject to analysis of costs, benefits, and incentives, much like any other personal choice.
20. Obesity—Who Bears the Costs?
American men and women have both gained an average of more than 20 pounds since the early 1960s. Address the reasons for this increase, the role played by economic factors, and the implications for public policy, including who really pays the costs obesity imposes.
21. The Economics of Natural Disasters
The damage natural disasters do to people and property is not just a matter of fate. Explore how the answers to economic questions about socially appropriate investments in advance planning and preparation for rapid response can influence the impact of a natural disaster.
22. Sports Lessons—Pay, Performance, Tournaments
Although sports account for a far less significant piece of the economy than most people assume, it does provide economists with especially clear examples with much broader applicability. Grasp what sports can teach us about issues like pay and promotion, valuing talent, and providing incentives for top performance.
23. Voting, Money, and Politics
What happens when voting—its costs, incentives, even its very rationality—is subjected to the scrutiny of economists? Understand the real impacts on this defining principle of democracy from factors like voter ignorance, money, special interests, and turnout.
24. The Pursuit of Happiness
If happiness is indeed the ultimate incentive for the choices we make, is there any way to measure it? This concluding lecture examines several ways in which economists have sought to define and measure this elusive goal and the ways in which the results might influence our choices.