What do Billie Eilish, Marvel supervillain Thanos and the Canadian blogger who traded a red paperclip for a house all have in common? It turns out that they, along with an array of other pop culture figures, can all be used to provide unique illustrations of key economic principles.
Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle once famously dubbed economics ‘the dismal science’. Fortunately, the discipline has come a long way from those dreary days. Best-selling books such as Freakonomics, NPR’s chart-topping podcast Planet Money, and Hollywood blockbusters such as Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street have helped propel economics into the mainstream.
However, for students who are new to the discipline, the textbook treatment of foundational economic concepts can often seem detached from the world around them. To help bridge this gap, we embarked on a program to incorporate an assortment of pop culture references into Principles of Economics 1 (ECON1020) during this session.
These modern cultural touchpoints (in the form of YouTube videos, viral news reports, blog posts and even TikToks) have been used throughout the unit in online discussion forums, iLearn polls and tutorial prompts. All material is designed to reframe weekly lecture topics in settings more familiar to students. This will hopefully strengthen their understanding of the material covered and motivate their interest in economics.
Our work in ECON1020 is built upon several core principles that permeate the economics education and pedagogy literature, such as the importance of providing relevant and relatable content, the use of web-based media to engage students, and the preference for flexible teaching styles.
Embedding pop culture into the unit is proving to be a hit. 98.8% of ECON1020 students (160 out of 162 respondents) indicated that the references made the economic principles covered in the unit more relatable.
Here are three of our favourite examples from this session:
1. The economics behind poor customer service
Comedian Scott Seiss recently went viral for posting TikToks from the perspective of an exasperated, minimum-wage employee dealing with demanding customers. His videos resonated with viewers worldwide. They also offered an insight into what economists call the principal-agent problem, which occurs when one party (the principal) would like another party (the agent) to behave in a manner that cannot be enforced. In this case, we can attribute Seiss’ repeated fictional anguish (our agent in this scenario) to the fact that his boss (our principal) is unlikely to be able to monitor his interactions with every customer. While this knowledge cannot guarantee our students better customer service experiences, they will at least be able to understand the economic forces at play the next time they are left frustrated at the checkout.
2. The opportunity cost of seeing Taylor Swift
Opportunity cost is arguably the most fundamental concept in economics. However, it is not as simple as we often think. In this iLearn poll, we use modern-day music stars to reframe a question that was originally used in 2005 to assess the understanding of the principle by professional economists. In the original study by Paul Ferraro and Laura Taylor, almost 80 per cent of economists chose the wrong answer! Happily, ECON1020 students fared much better. Weighing up both monetary and subjective costs is crucial when it comes to making good decisions.
3. Supervillain economics
In Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, supervillain Thanos justified his goal of destroying half of all life in the universe by stating “It’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist”. Despite his (extremely) questionable methods, Thanos touched upon a fundamental economic problem: the fair allocation of scarce resources. In fact, his views were very similar to that of Thomas Malthus (one of the original dismal scientists) who believed that all technological progress would be eroded by population growth, resulting in subsistence-level incomes for all. In tutorials, we asked students to discuss key differences between the philosophies of Thanos and Malthus and pick who was the better economist. For the record, Thanos won the popular vote.
If you want to learn more about our efforts to embed pop culture references into ECON1020, get in touch with Paul or Dylan.
Dylan Thompson is a Sessional Academic and Teaching Assistant in the Macquarie Business School. He teaches in the Economics department, predominantly focused on the teaching and delivery of the first year Principles of Economics 1 unit. Dylan holds a Masters of Research in Economics from Macquarie University and is currently undertaking his PhD in Economics, where he is conducting research to understand how digital music platforms and streaming technologies are affecting the economics of the music industry.
What a great article, Paul. Thank you. And I LOVE Planet Money. It’s my fav podcast by far!
Thanks Olga! Good to meet a fellow Planet Money fan!