2015-2016 Economics Courses
Economics of the Ecological Crisis
Humanity faces perhaps its greatest-ever collective challenge as population growth and economic development degrade and change the natural environment across the planet. Scientists and economists largely agree that massive changes from business-as-usual practices and growth paths will be needed to prevent catastrophes like climate change and mass extinctions. In this course, we will seek to understand the relationship between capitalism and the environment from a variety of perspectives, including ecological, environmental, and institutional economics and theories of sustainable development and eco-socialism. The course will be divided into two broad parts. First, we will examine economic theory. Why does capitalism have a tendency to overexploit the environment? Could we imagine “taming” capitalism to make it sustainable, or is another economic system required? What would such a system look like? Economists are deeply divided over this question, and even those who advocate for system change have recently tended to acknowledge that it may not be possible given the timeframe that humanity has for adjusting its environmental course. Another major issue that we will discuss in this section is valuation. When is it appropriate for society to place a quantifiable value on environmental goods and services, and how should that be done? The second part of the course will look more carefully at individual issues such as climate change, energy policy, local air and water pollution, and common property resource management. We will also discuss potential public-policy solutions for mitigating environmental damages and introducing new technologies such as renewable energy. Throughout the year, we will utilize economic theory, case studies (making use of the Center for the Urban River, for example), and the political economy of various environmental issues in considering our ultimate question: Can humanity avoid the worst impacts of climate change and other environmental threats over the coming decades?
Social Metrics I: Introduction to Structural Analysis in the Social Sciences
The course is designed for all students interested in the social sciences who wish to understand the methodology and techniques involved in the estimation of structural relationships between variables. It is intended for students who wish to be able to carry out empirical work in their particular field, both at Sarah Lawrence College and beyond, and critically engage empirical work done by academic or professional social scientists. The practical hands-on approach taken in this course will be useful to those students who wish to do future conference projects in the social (or natural) sciences with significant empirical content. It will also be invaluable for students who are seeking internships, planning to enter the job market, or desiring to pursue graduate education in the social sciences and public policy. After taking this course, students will be able to analyze questions such as the following: What is the relationship between slavery and the development of capitalist industrialization in the United States? What effects do race, gender, and educational attainment have in the determination of wages? How does the female literacy rate affect the child mortality rate? How can one model the effect of economic growth on carbon dioxide emissions? What is the relationship among sociopolitical instability, inequality, and economic growth? How do geographic location and state spending affect average public-school teacher salaries? How do socioeconomic factors determine the crime rate in the United States? During the course of the semester, we will study all of these questions. The course is broadly split up into three sections. In the first part, we will study the application of statistical methods and techniques in order to: a) understand, analyze, and interpret a wide range of social phenomena such as those mentioned above; b) test hypotheses/theories regarding the possible links between variables; and c) make predictions about prospective changes in the economy. Social metrics is fundamentally a regression-based correlation methodology used to measure the overall strength, direction, and statistical significance between a “dependent” variable—the variable whose movement or change is to be explained—and one or more “independent” variables that will explain the movement or change in the dependent variable. Social metrics will require a detailed understanding of the mechanics, advantages, and limitations of the “classical” linear regression model. Thus, the first part of the course will cover the theoretical and applied statistical principles that underlie Ordinary Lest Squares (OLS) regression techniques. This part will cover the assumptions needed to obtain the Best Linear Unbiased Estimates of a regression equation, also known as the “BLUE” conditions. Particular emphasis will be placed on the assumptions regarding the distribution of a model’s error term and other BLUE conditions. We will also cover hypothesis testing, sample selection, and the critical role of the t- and F-statistic in determining the statistical significance of a social metric model and its associated slope or “β” parameters. In the second part of the course, we will address the three main problems associated with the violation of a particular BLUE assumption: multicollinearity, autocorrelation, and heteroscedasticity. We will learn how to identify, address, and remedy each of these problems. In addition, we will take a similar approach to understanding and correcting model specification errors. The third part of the course will focus on the analysis of historical time-series models and the study of long-run trend relationships between variables. No prior background in economics or the social sciences is required, but a knowledge of basic statistics and high-school algebra is required.
Fiscal Sociology, Public Finance, and the “Fiscal Crisis of the State”
Can a government run out of money, and are there limits to how high budget deficits and public debt can get? This a key question that we will investigate in this course by studying the factors that determine taxation, as well as the nature of money and public finance. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter said: “The spirit of a people, its cultural level, its social structure, the deeds its policy may prepare—all this and more is written in its fiscal history, stripped of all phrases. He who knows how to listen to its message here discerns the thunder of world history more clearly than anywhere else.” Following Schumpeter, before him Rudolf Goldscheid, and after him Lord Nicholas Kaldor, a number of scholars in recent years have attempted to construct a new fiscal sociology that would investigate the challenges of public finance; in particular, a government’s taxation capacity in the context of its political economy, legal framework, power relations, historically-constructed institutions, and even cultural norms. This course will explore the nexus between a government’s taxation capacity, money and public finance, central banking, and public debt. We will also study the legal and political contexts within which money and central banking arose as capitalism developed. The course is designed for students seeking a historically-informed and interdisciplinary approach to the study of these topics. Some prior background in economics is helpful but not mandatory.
Political Economy of Women
What factors determine the status of women in different societies and communities? What role is played by women’s labor, both inside and outside of the home? By cultural norms regarding sexuality and reproduction? By religious traditions? After a brief theoretical grounding, this course will address these questions by examining the economic, political, social, and cultural histories of women in the various racial/ethnic and class groupings that make up the United States. Topics to be explored include: the role of women in the Iroquois Confederation before white colonization and the factors that gave Iroquois women significant political and social power in their communities; the status of white colonist women in Puritan Massachusetts and the economic, religious, and other factors that led to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692; the position of African American women under slavery, including the gendered and racialized divisions of labor and reproduction; the growth of competitive capitalism in the North and the development of the “cult of true womanhood” in the rising middle class; the economic and political changes that accompanied the Civil War and Reconstruction and the complex relationships between African American and white women in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements; the creation of a landless agricultural labor force and the attempts to assimilate Chicana women into the dominant culture via “Americanization” programs; the conditions that encouraged Asian women’s immigration and their economic and social positions once here; the American labor movement and the complicated role that organized labor has played in the lives of women of various racial/ethnic groups and classes; the impact of US colonial policies on Puerto Rican migration and Puerto Rican women’s economic and political status on both the Island and the mainland; the economic/political convulsions of the 20th century, from the trusts of the early 1900s to World War II, and their impact on women’s paid and unpaid labor; the impact of changes in gendered economic roles on LGBT communities; the economic and political upheavals of the 1960s that led to the so-called “second wave” of the women’s movement; and the current position of women in the US economy and polity and the possibilities for inclusive public policies concerning gender and family issues.
First-Year Studies: Workers in the Globalized Economy
Globalization, neoliberal political institutions, and information technology have created foundational changes in the structure and content of work, both in the United States and around the globe. These changes have also had an enormous impact on workers’ traditional modes of organizing and on their ability to pursue their economic and political interests. Today, only 6.6% of private-sector workers in the United States belong to unions. Partly as a result, inequality in the United States today rivals that of the pre-Depression 1920s, our (already modest) welfare state is in retreat, and political discourse and policy have become increasingly reflective of the interests of the wealthy. This course will explore the state of US workers (both native-born and immigrant) from the Civil War to the present. We’ll examine the major changes in the structure of the US economy (e.g., from small, competitive firms to huge, transnational oligopolies) and the implications of these changes for workers’ lives and the possibilities for organizing. We’ll explore the history of workers’ attempts to organize and the obstacles to their success, including divisions by race, gender, nativity, and sexual orientation/identity. Finally, we’ll examine recent efforts—such as worker centers, social movement unionism, and nonprofit organizing—to improve the conditions of workers outside of a traditional union framework. Requirements for the course include frequent, short papers on the readings, a yearlong conference/research project, and a number of small-group research projects on various worker formations in the New York City area. Readings and class discussions will be supplemented with labor-related films and speakers from New York City-area labor organizations.
Smith, Marx, and Keynes
John Maynard Keynes wrote, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Since capitalism emerged as the dominant economic system in Europe and North America in the 18th century, theorists and policymakers have sought to understand the logic of this new way of organizing production and distribution. What determined the price of goods? The wages of labor? The profits to owners of capital? Would capitalism grow unceasingly, suffer from cycles, or inevitably decline into stagnation or collapse? Should the government actively regulate the economy, or should it play a minimal role and leave markets to determine outcomes without intervention? Should trade with other countries be regulated or free? What was the responsibility of the government with respect to the poor? Should they be assisted? Controlled? In the vigorous debates over these issues, continuing into the present, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes are frequently invoked as economic policy. A careful reading of these authors, however, shows that they were far more complex thinkers than the simplified versions of their ideas commonly circulated. This course will focus on the debates about value, distribution, economic dynamics, and the role of government through a careful reading of Smith, Marx, and Keynes in the original, followed by an examination of modern interpretations of their ideas.
Macroeconomic Theory and Policy
Macroeconomics studies the dynamics of an economy as a whole, looking at the forces that lead to economic growth or recession, the overall distribution of income, and the causes of unemployment and inflation. Different schools of economic thought offer varying and often contradictory explanations of these dynamic trends. Public policy debates play a central role in this discussion, as the different macroeconomic models have implications for the roles of fiscal and monetary policy, the desirable level of governmental intervention into and regulation of the private economy, and even what constitutes a good macroeconomic outcome. In this course, we will build and examine the competing macro models beginning with Keynes and moving up to the present theoretical debates—including the monetarist, new classical, neo-Keynesian, post-Keynesian, and political economic schools of thought—with attention to their differing policy implications. We will then focus on the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath as a case study, examining the debates about its causes and appropriate policy responses. This course requires a background in economics.
Introduction to Economic Theory and Policy
Economics explores the ways in which people organize themselves to sustain and enhance their quality of life and well-being. Societies throughout history and across the globe have developed numerous ways of coordinating economic activity through a variety of institutional arrangements. This introductory course will introduce basic economic concepts and contemporary issues from a variety of schools of thought, including insights from neoclassical, Keynesian, Marxist, institutionalist, and behavioral economists. We will use the tools developed in the course to explore some of the central questions of economics. Why is capitalism the dominant economic system throughout the world? Why are some countries poor while others are rich? How do institutions shape economic outcomes? How do people and firms make choices about what to buy and produce? How does the level of competition between firms in a market impact their decisions? What are some of the causes and economic consequences of unemployment and inflation? How do we measure economic activity in a society to include market and household production, as well as considerations for environmental degradation? To what extent can policy makers impact key economic indicators? We will also look at the causes of the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent weak recovery, the recent European economic crisis, the fiscal position of the US government, and other issues that economists and policy makers are debating now.