EconTalk: The Best Continuing Education Money Can’t Buy

This post originally appeared on The Finance Buff and is cited by the 210th Carnival of Personal Finance.

My 75 minute one-way commute by foot and train affords me ample time to continue my education by podcast. My favorite podcast by far is EconTalk, a weekly one-hour interview program affiliated with the Library of Economics and Liberty. (All the podcasts to which I currently subscribe are listed in this spreadsheet.) In a typical episode the host Russell Roberts (George Mason University) interviews an academic economist. His interviewees have also included non-economists with expertise that relate to economics, though often in non-obvious ways. The program, and Roberts, is so good that I’d buy a lifetime subscription to EconTalk. But I don’t have to: it’s free.

I began listening to EconTalk about one year ago on the suggestion of a participant on the Bogleheads Forum. The first episode I heard was an interview with Mike Munger (Duke University) on middlemen. It happened to be a particularly interesting show and is still one of my favorites. Munger has been the most frequent guest and for good reason. He has a talent for making economic concepts accessible and relating them to the everyday. Limiting oneself to Munger’s EconTalk interviews alone would provide an outstanding overview of some of the fundamentals of economic thinking.

While Munger’s interviews may be among the best and most accessible, one can hardly go wrong with any EconTalk interview. Of the approximately 160 shows to date (the program began in March of 2006), I stopped listening to only about five before they ran to completion (a 97% rate of satisfaction). What makes the episodes so good are the guests, of course, but also Roberts. He fills his role well, routinely asking sharp (but not antagonizing) questions, letting guests speak at length, playing skeptic and devil’s advocate where appropriate, taking time to explain concepts, and posing clarifying queries to illuminate subtle points.

Perhaps Robert’s greatest strength is his refreshing awareness of and openness about his own bias. The bulk of one entire episode was devoted to his own exploration and evolution of his bias. He freely acknowledges the influence on his thinking of the Austrian and Chicago schools of economic thought. The work of Hayek has had a particularly strong impact on Roberts, and the Austrian economist is mentioned, if not quoted, in nearly every podcast.

To date, EconTalk has covered a wide range of topics in economics but also some surprising areas one doesn’t immediately associate with the “dismal science.” For example, there are episodes on piracy, ants, seasteading, political polling, baseball, football, ticket scalping, family, happiness, global warming, and many other topics.

Over the past year I’ve kept up with current EconTalk episodes and listened through the entire archived collection. As an experienced listener I can make two suggestions about how not to listen. Do not start with the first March 2006 episode and work forward. Roberts definitely improved with practice and didn’t hit his stride until early 2007. The episodes can be listened to in any order; later ones reference earlier ones but only in passing, not as prerequisites. So, I recommend listening to later shows first or at least some from 2007-2009 before those of 2006.

Second, unless you’re an Adam Smith fanatic you may want to wait on the EconTalk book club’s treatment of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. In these extra episodes, scheduled between regular EconTalk releases, Dan Klein (George Mason University) and Roberts discuss Smith’s lesser known work in great detail. The style of discussion is less thematic than other EconTalk episodes, which imposes a higher barrier to accessibility in my opinion.

While EconTalk is great, it can always be better. I have two requests. In this time of tremendous attention on health reform I would like to hear some new voices on the health insurance and health care markets. (There has not been a single episode on health care in 2009 and very few, if any, focused squarely on the health insurance market.) My other request is for an interview with an economist with expertise in Medicare, a topic that has not been explored (except possibly in passing) on EconTalk. (Since these are my areas of research I am more aware than others that they have not received much attention to date.)

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but EconTalk is existence proof of excellent, free education. Over the past year I’ve walked many miles with Roberts and his guests as companions. In the years to come I am sure EconTalk will continue to improve, entertain, and enlighten. I’ll be listening.

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