Using NPR's Planet Money podcast in Principles of Macroeconomics.

Author:Luther, William J.
  1. Introduction

    Ben Stein's monotonous lecture on the effects of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act is painful to watch, but it points to a big problem macroeconomics educators face. In contrast to Principles of Microeconomics, where students encounter decisions similar to those they make every day, Principles of Macroeconomics requires conceptualization of unfamiliar aggregate constructs like gross domestic product and inflation. As a result, many students find it difficult to understand the big ideas in macroeconomics. Since students do not know enough about the core concepts to consider interesting questions from the outset, many macroeconomics educators limit themselves at the principles level to boring lectures aimed at bringing students up to speed. Others, like Stein, drone on answering their own questions about the interesting topics their students are not yet prepared to consider. In both cases, some students inevitably disengage (leaving the instructor asking, "Anyone? Anyone?") and never reach a level where open discourse is possible.

    Many teacher-scholars reference popular media in the classroom or in out-of-class exercises to illustrate the practical relevance of the course material while capturing students' attention. Diamond (2009), Ghent, Stone, and Mateer (2011), Hall (2005), Holian (2011), Mateer (2004), and Mateer and Stephenson (2011) use video clips from popular movies and television shows to illustrate economic concepts. Hall and Lawson (2008) and Hall et al. (2008) use lyrics from popular songs. Lawson (2006) constructs assignments with comic strips. Along these lines, I have incorporated NPR's Planet Money podcast into my introductory macroeconomics course. (1)

    In what follows, I describe the podcast and provide a list of episodes others might find useful. I also identify corresponding chapters from Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok's Modern Principles: Macroeconomics (2011). After briefly reviewing how I came to use NPR's Planet Money in Principles of Macroeconomics, I present the results of a survey given to students after completing my course. I find that students enjoy listening to the assigned episodes. They report that it made them more interested in the principles course, helped them to understand the relevance of macroeconomics, and increased their understanding of many macroeconomic issues. Most students also feel more comfortable discussing macroeconomic issues having listened to the podcast. And nearly half of those students surveyed say they will continue listening to the podcast after the course ends. As such, I recommend that other instructors incorporate NPR's Planet Money podcast into their own introductory courses in macroeconomics.

  2. The Planet Money Podcast

    Planet Money is a podcast and blog produced by National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States. When the podcast launched in September 2008, its primary mission was to cover the financial crisis. In the time since, its coverage has expanded to include a broader range of economic issues. Episodes are hosted by Alex Blumberg, Zoe Chace, Adam Davidson, Jacob Goldstein, Chana Joffe-Walt, 1 Caitlin Kenney, David Kestenbaum, and/or Amy Stevens. New episodes are usually released on Tuesday and Friday each week.

    Several characteristics make NPR's Planet Money podcast suitable for use in a standard introductory macroeconomics course. Each episode is roughly twenty minutes long. Their relatively short duration and casual tone mean students can squeeze in an episode while getting ready in the morning, on their way to and from class, or while working out at the gym. By enabling them to make use of time that would otherwise be wasted, the podcast gives students more economics at little opportunity cost.

    An episode typically covers a single economic issue. (2) Each issue is approached from an interesting angle with a healthy dose of humor. For example, episode 392, "Keeping the Biggest Secret in the US Economy" (NPR 2012a), presents the somewhat extreme measures taken by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to ensure monthly employment data are not released ahead of schedule. (Among other things, economists with clearance have to take out their own trash.) Along the way, students learn who collects these data, how they are collected, and the frequency with which they are released--institutional details often glossed over or omitted entirely in an introductory macroeconomics course.

    Planet Money presents controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner without tempering disagreement. Consider, for example, the two-part series on the gold standard. In the first part, episode 252, "The Gold Standard" (NPR 2011a), David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein interview finance writer James Grant, who is identified as "the go-to guy on Wall Street if you want to hear the pro-gold standard argument" (6:45). They establish Grant as a well-respected expert who appears regularly on television and who writes op-eds for reputable news outlets including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They note his successful investment newsletter, Grant's Interest Rate Observer, which, as Kestenbaum remarks, "investors pay a lot of money to get" (7:12). Even when describing Grant as a "charming curmudgeon," they do so in a way that is playful, amusing, and not at all disrespectful (7:20).

    In the second part, episode 253, "The Gold Standard, R.I.P." (NPR 2011b), Kestenbaum and Goldstein present the view of economists who oppose the gold standard. The episode opens with a...

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