It’s a familiar situation for lots of people, especially since the financial crisis — Perhaps you’ve gone to university, or perhaps you haven’t, but you want to know more about economics.
It seems not only like an important subject, but one that leaks into lots of parts of everyday life — as well as politics, technology, business, and pretty much everything really.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to pick up a self-made education in economics, even if you don’t want to learn the maths or go back to school.
Here are just three of the ways you can get into the dismal science.
Lectures on YouTube
MIT’s Principles of Microeconomics course is chopped into 26 videos of between 45 and 50 minutes, and it’s all available on YouTube. Though you’re deprived of the ability to ask questions, what you do get is the ability to rewind. It’s not a bad swap.
If you want to go down this route, it will give you a good idea of the basic modelling the underpins huge sections of economics. It’s probably the most difficult way to learn — it’s understandably designed for MIT students, and they’re pretty smart.
It might be a good idea to learn along with a textbook, which is famously expensive for undergraduates. Greg Mankiw’s microeconomics textbook, for example, costs over $US200 (£129.60) to buy new, and some professors will want you to have the latest version to work from.
But you don’t need that — you can get a used version of the fourth edition of the same book (written back in the Jurassic era, 2006) for less than $US10 (£6.48).
Even if you do want to actually go back to formal education to study economics, this is a good way of getting into it. I started an evening conversion course in the subject in 2014, and found the videos helpful.
And if that’s your aim, you should read this piece from Miles Kimball and Noah Smith on getting into an economics PhD. If you live in the UK, you can take what’s called a Graduate Diploma in Economics, effectively a conversion course from another degree subject into economics.
Admittedly, this is not going to be much of a fun way to learn the subject. A lot of the content is dense and can seem like it’s not very much to do with any interesting economic issues. But if you’re really committed to learning the basics of the discipline, this is a cheap way to get a taste of it, and it’s the closest thing to the real academic training that you can get without taking an actual course.
Similarly, there are massive open online courses (MOOCs) like those run by MRUniversity. They have got courses designed to be taken online, ranging from a basic microeconomics course to one on the economic history of the Soviet Union.
With filmed lectures like the MIT ones, you can’t interact, whereas MRUniversity allows you to post and answer questions. You can take entire courses all the way through or dip in and out.
Stanford University ran a similar course during the summer, Principles of Economics with John B. Taylor. This is something big that universities are moving in to more and more.
The University of California has a Macroeconomics-specific course on Coursera, which has a huge wealth of courses to be taken.
There are at least 15 similar courses listed by the Financial Times under economics, too.
This is probably the best middle-ground option. If you don’t want it to be quite as maths-y as the MIT videos above, and have no desire to bury your head in a textbook, it might be the one for you. There’s a big range of courses available for different ability levels. Some will require some understanding or aptitude for maths, and others are almost number-free.
Self-study with books
Learning online with videos, whether pre-recorded physical lectures or MOOC-style, isn’t for everyone. Some people just want to learn a little more about economics, and don’t need to know the maths or the nitty gritty elements of the discipline.
Thankfully, there are a bunch of books that anyone with an interest and a bit of time could read, which would give you a much better understanding of the subject:
- BBC economic journalist Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist,” or basically anything by Harford.
- Sky News economics editor Ed Conway’s “50 Economics Ideas You Really Need to Know.”
- “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics” — Nicholas Wapshott takes a look at two of the most well-known thinkers in economics ever.
- “The Worldly Philsophers” similarly takes a look at the lives of some of the handful of economists that have become household names.
- Paul Krugman’s “Pop Internationalism,” which discusses some of the popular economic measurements most often reported on.
- “Freakonomics” surely now counts as one of the most popular books on economics ever written, and there’s reams of stuff about it online.
- “The Armchair Economist” has a Freakonomics-ish feel to it, exploring some everyday problems, and explaining how an economist would approach them.
If you’re never going to need to understand the nitty-gritty of models (or make your own) then this may be the best option. It’s a daunting subject, but a huge amount can be picked up relatively easily — and once you start to think in the way an economist does, it’s all downhill from there.