Did you say that voting is ridiculous? Using South Park to teach public choice.

Author:Hoffer, Adam J.
Position:Educational Note
 
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  1. Introduction

    Recent economics education literature has advocated moving away from the pure lecture style of classroom instruction. Scholars have suggested the incorporation of movie clips (Mateer and Li 2008; Mateer and Stephenson 2011), video clips (Diamond 2009), comic strips (Lawson 2006), podcasts (Hall 2012), and academic entrepreneurship from student presentations (Hoffer 2013).

    Hall (2005), Holian (2011), and Ghent, Grant, and Lesica (2011) recommend the use of television clips, describing economics in The Simpsons, The Drew Carey Show, and Seinfeld, respectively. We describe a similar methodology using the television show South Park, with a particular focus on the use of a 2004 episode to illustrate key concepts in public choice. Compared with programs discussed in the existing literature, South Park provides a unique angle though which to demonstrate economics.

    First, South Park has maintained its popularity and cultural relevance since its debut in 1997 and continues to air new episodes. Conversely, The Drew Carey Show's final season was in 2004, and Seinfelds final season was in 1998; the typical freshman entering college in the fall of 2015 was born in 1997. While The Simpsons is still airing new episodes, they appear on a network channel, whereas South Park is aired on Comedy Central, a cable channel, giving the show far more leeway to address current issues in a manner that is less politically correct. While this often means the typical episode of South Park involves crass jokes and adult subject matter, it also gives the show more credibility with early undergraduate students, as the added "taboo" factor draws students' attention. Each storyline unfolds through an honest, raw, unforgiving, nearly unfiltered lens--an appropriate perspective through which to educate students about free markets and public choice. Finally, episodes of South Park run just over twenty minutes and are freely available (both in their entirety and in premade clips) online at southparkstudios.com, making it an ideal show for classroom use.

    While many episodes of South Park are rich with examples of economic concepts, we will focus on a single episode that has proven effective in teaching core ideas of public choice to introductory economics students at the undergraduate level. (1) South Park episodes, and this episode in particular, contain language and subject matter geared toward mature audiences (episodes are rated TV-MA when they air on television) and have been described by the Parents Television Council as "not recommended for viewers under 18," so we are not endorsing its use in high school classes or with audiences who might be offended. We suggest instructors view the episode prior to showing it in a classroom and consider their audience. With an appropriate discussion, however, we feel the merits of the episode outweigh its possible offensiveness and make it an...

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