So for this latest course I took I jumped ship yet again onto another platform, that of the rather pretentiously named MRUniversity. I’ve been following the Marginal Revolution blog for ages now, which I understand is that most popular economics blog on the net, so I’ve known that they’ve set up an online university of their own a while back. But this is the first time I went poking into what’s available from them and I was pleasantly surprised by how much of it there is. It looks like I’ll have plenty to occupy myself with for a while, starting right here with the Principles of Economics.
As someone who has been a subscriber to The Economist for years and who have read or browsed various economics books and even textbooks, at first I thought this was only going to be a bit of a refresher for me. It turns out that there is a difference between taking an actual course in economics and learning various stuff about it through osmosis. Sure I might know about demand and supply but I sure didn’t know about their elasticity. I might know wonky stuff like the effects of minimum wages but it’s much better to know general stuff about price floors and price ceilings. This course is a treasure trove of such knowledge and I like that it frequently references real life situations to demonstrate that this isn’t all just theoretical models.
To be fair, I don’t think that this fully qualifies as a true online course. The videos are all hosted on YouTube and there aren’t any fancy tools like in-video quizzes. Even after you’ve signed up for any account, the system doesn’t even keep track of which videos you’ve watched. I had to do it myself through old-fashioned bookmarks. There are practice quizzes after each video but these are simple multiple choice questions, no messing around with entering numerical values yourself or drawing graphs. At the end of the course there’s a final exam that awards you a nice badge on your profile page if you get at least 80% of the questions right but you get unlimited attempts, so it’s not a real test. There doesn’t even seem to be much of a community yet. You can participate in discussions at the bottom of each video but there isn’t much going on in there.
I found myself being amused that although Tyler Cowen is the more famous of the two, this course is largely taught by Alex Tabarrok. Cowen only appears in a handful of videos, but I did very much enjoy one debate style video in which both of them discuss whether or not higher education benefits students mainly due to signalling or because they actually learn something while in university. Other favorites of mine are those that touch on how it’s almost magical the way the “invisible hand” allocates production so efficiently and solves problems.
Since I’m more interested in developing a reasonable intuition about economics rather than calculating anything I only paid cursory attention to the maths. I still did well enough to get the certificate but I can’t help but wish that they devoted more time to explaining how this applies to real life situations. More generally, even though there’s empirical evidence that the demand-supply model is true, I don’t understand how we would actually go about figuring out the shape of the curves in real life. How do we go from the theoretical models to applicable policies and how relevant is knowing that efficiency is achieved when Marginal Cost = Marginal Revenue to figuring out what policies we should enact?
Anyway this is a fantastic course that I think pretty much everyone should take given how central economic issues are to the lives of everybody. I really like how the first half is about how great markets are and how they work and the second half is about all those cases in which they don’t work so well and why, proving that the study of market failures is very much a part of modern economics. I really dislike critics of capitalism who don’t seem to realize that. So thumbs up for some really good content and I expect to be busy with the rest for much of this year.