Teaching Modules Roundup: Incorporating Social Issues into Introductory Economics

Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Ryoji Iwata via Unsplash.

By Stacey Yuen

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains deeply felt in the classroom as a new year has arrived. Beyond the possibility of switching to remote teaching, educators and students alike are contending with questions about whether their curriculum materials effectively reflect the changing realities in their society and the socioeconomic challenges that have been starkly amplified over the past two years.

Given the interconnectedness between economic systems and social institutions, economics education is an ideal platform to integrate concepts across disciplines to equip students with a sound understanding of the real world. An expanding list of heterodox programs in economics suggests schools and educators are increasingly recognizing the value of providing an interdisciplinary economics education that incorporates analysis from adjacent fields, or even more radical theories from within the discipline.

However, the majority of mainstream textbooks still sit within the sphere of traditional, neoclassical economics. Although they discuss issues such as pollution, externalities and inequality, those discussions are usually sidelined with greater emphasis on topics like perfectly competitive markets, efficiency, growth and market competition.

 The Economics in Context Initiative’s (ECI) latest collection of free-to-use teaching modules offers a bold alternative. Reaching far beyond the confines of neoclassical economics, the modules gather insights from radical economics and Marxian thought to discuss the concept of power within the economy, delving into a comparative analysis of different types of economic systems, discussing the social and political forces influencing consumer behavior and presenting new data on the impacts of COVID-19 on inequality. ECI’s modules take an interdisciplinary approach to discussing economic issues by drawing from history, sociology and other social sciences to provide an in-depth and inclusive understanding of issues of power and equity.

 Below, explore a selection of our newest teaching modules:

The Power of Capital: An Introduction to Class, Domination, and Conflict

Revolution Square, Moscow. Photo by Hennie Stander via Unsplash.

In perhaps a one-of-its-kind module designed for students of economics, The Power of Capital presents an overview of several core themes in radical economics: economic class, class power and class conflict. It addresses aspects of economic power in modern capitalist societies that are largely overlooked in neoclassical economics, including the unequal power relations between different economic classes.

 The module introduces exploitation – defined as one party using their power over another to obtain something over and above the value of what they give in exchange – as a central concept in radical economic theory. Unlike neoclassical economics, which generally neglects exploitation, radical economics focuses on the ways that one party’s exercise of power can allow them to appropriate wealth that is produced by another party. For example, owners of land, machines, buildings and other productive assets control the wealth in an economy and are thus able to hire workers and appropriate the new wealth produced by their workers.

 Drawing from the Marxist literature on class theory, the module includes dedicated discussions on the unequal power relations between the capitalist and working classes, and the ways business owners and managers can convert their economic power into political power, particularly to further their common class interests. It concludes with a section on conflict and change, taking a critical look at the role of workers’ collective action in challenging unequal class power relations. Download the module.

Comparative Economic Systems

Times Square, New York, United States. Photo by Cris Tagupa via Unsplash.

This module takes a close look at the different ways in which economies can be organized,  focusing on capitalism and socialism as two distinct economic systems and discussing the diverse forms these systems take in theory and practice. Diving into the historical contexts in which these systems have emerged and developed, the module aims to equip students to consider how to build better economic systems to address the social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

Perceptions about socialism and capitalism vary widely. While some associate socialism with under-developed countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, others think of it as an ideal model for creating a just and prosperous society. At the same time, many associate capitalism with wealth and freedom, while others view it as an unequal system that exploits workers and the environment. This module explores these contradicting viewpoints and discusses the defining characteristics of each system based on how economic decisions are made and who owns productive assets.

The module presents case studies of four distinct economic systems – market capitalism, market socialism, state capitalism and planned socialism – using examples of the United States, Sweden, China and the former Soviet Union, and discusses their respective economic and social experiences and outcomes. It then analyzes how the key contemporary issues of inequality and environmental sustainability relate to the different economic systems. Finally, the appendix presents possible pathways to building stronger economic systems. Download the module.

Consumption and the Consumer Society

Shopping Mall in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Heidi Fin via Unsplash.

 While neoclassical economics assumes people make calculated rational decisions to maximize their utility, perhaps no other economic activity is shaped more by its social context than consumption. This module introduces students to the various motivations behind consumer behavior by tracing the historical development of contemporary “consumer society” and the socio-political factors – such as identity, norms and advertising – that shape how economic agents act. It also discusses global consumption patterns in an environmental context, in view of studies that suggest consumption levels in the United States and many other developed countries have reached unsustainable levels.

The module aims to help students consider the degree to which current consumption levels in developed countries are compatible with social, economic and environmental well-being. It proposes public policy strategies to shape consumption patterns, including ways to nudge people to make choices that align better with enhancing human well-being. Download the module.

Social and Economic Inequality

Photo by Elyse Chia via Unsplash.

Inequality remains one of the most pressing and persistent socio-economic problems of the current century, particularly as the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The wealth gap between countries is expected to rise for the first time in a generation, according to a recent World Bank study. While inequality between countries has declined by 34 percent between 1993 and 2017, attributable to the economic development of poor and populous countries in Asia, the pandemic has directly offset the reduction in gap in inter-country inequality from the years 2013 to 2017.

This module provides an overview of some central issues on economic and social inequality, looking beyond income measures to explore inequalities in education, healthcare, and labor market discrimination. It addresses both positive and normative questions related to inequality. The positive analysis focuses on the definition, measurement, causes and consequences of inequality, while the normative analysis encourages students to consider whether current levels of inequality are acceptable, and to think about the ethical and political debates on inequality that are often driven by strongly-held values.

The module presents empirical analysis on inequality in the United States and internationally, and includes new data on the impacts of COVID-19 on inequality. It then discusses the underlying causes of rising inequality and suggests possible policy solutions. Download the module.


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