Berkeley’s Econ 113: DeLong’s Other Job

The entirety of my negligible relationship with Brad DeLong is blog-based. We cite a tiny fraction of each other’s stuff just infrequently enough that almost nobody notices. That’s it. Given the volume and quality of posts he produces one would be forgiven (though not by him, perhaps) in thinking blogging is all he does. In contrast, given the lack of volume and quality of posts I produce one would be forgiven (though not by me, perhaps) in suggesting I do other things.

Well I do (whew!). So does DeLong (OMG!). And one of his other things is teaching Berkeley’s Econ 113, American Economic History. To deepen our relationship and learn a few things, I downloaded (and listened to) the Fall 2008 version of the course audio via iTunes University. It, along with lecture notes, is online as well.

Nearly all courses begin like this post, with a throwaway opening. Full of administrative tasks and an overly general course summary, the first lecture of a class is usually dreadful. Not so DeLong’s. You know a course promises great entertainment when in the first lecture the professor: (a) Motivates his students to do the course work with an argument that relates the income distribution of state taxation to the state’s tuition subsidy and the effects of technology and education on income disparity; (b) Reaches back to post-war higher education policy to explain why the course texbook doesn’t cover recent history as thoroughly as pre-war history; And (c) leans on the invention of the printing press in an explanation of class size.

True to its first lecture, the course is entertaining and brimming with detailed historical accounting of all (well, not all) things American. I’m a detail guy, but not a DeLong-style detail guy. I don’t tend to reach back 500 years to explain, well, anything. DeLong does so in describing what he ate for breakfast (or so it seems). For this reason I had a hard time keeping up, and I am certain I could not have handled the class as an undergraduate. In fact, this was probably the most difficult course I’ve “taken” by podcast (see reviews of others). Yes, it is harder than game theory.

Nevertheless, I did manage to learn a few things, or re-learn them. The major themes came though even without explicit emphasis from DeLong: (1) The pre-civil war American economy was dominated by geography. It’s a story of waterways, mountain ranges, fertile land, and natural resources. These days we’re so intellectually removed from nature, the fact that our nation was built on it is easily overlooked. (2) The technological innovations of the industrial revolution dominated the post-civil war economy. (3) The history of the 20th century is largely a story about the Great Depression and World Wars and recovering from them. (That doesn’t seem so hard, but I left out a few details.)

And now we languish in the shadow of the worst recession since the Depression, one that included a frightening financial crisis that hit its lowest low during the class through which I listened. This was the Fall of 2008, and the turmoil in financial markets and the 2008 campaign for president were notable sub-themes of the course. DeLong switched gears fluidly and frequently jumped out of chronology to discuss these topics.

In lecture 10, for example, he abandoned the class material entirely and opted for a teach-in on the financial crisis, which was unfortunately cut due to faulty audio, or so I guess. (Aside: I am very sorry to say that the course suffered terribly from technical problems–poor audio, missing lectures and segments thereof, and many moments of professorial grief caught on “tape” (electrons?) as the overhead or laptop wouldn’t function.) But in lecture 10 the audio held strong long enough to capture an amusing story of DeLong’s failed attempt to debate Kevin Hassett, co-author of Dow 36,000. A week or so prior, DeLong had been asked to take the Obama side in a debate on the 2008 presidential candidates’ economic agenda. Hassett would have been his opponent, but he refused to leave his hotel room on the grounds that DeLong had rudely critiqued his book. (DeLong’s opinion of Hassett is still less than favorable.)

So, Econ 113 is plenty of fun, but not so easy to hear through all the popping and hissing (and nonexistent) audio. I’m sorry to say that Yale produces far better distance learning products, at least technically though not necessarily in terms of content. No doubt there’s another economic point here to be made about technology and education, something to do with the fact that size of endowments really matter. Humorously enough, DeLong himself notes in the course that Berkeley had asked him to consider providing more material for distance learning. He rightly points out that until the institution can manage to keep fresh batteries in the microphone it is hardly worth his time and effort. But I’m glad he tried anyway.

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