Besides being one of Harvard’s largest and most popular courses, Economics 10 might be best known for producing well-known alumni. From Ben S. Bernanke ’75, former chair of the Federal Reserve, to the professors of the course themselves, many current leaders in their fields began their college educations taking Ec 10 in Sanders Theatre.
For this reason, when David I. Laibson ’88 and Jason Furman ’92 — former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama — inherited the class from N. Gregory Mankiw, they knew not to take their newfound opportunity lightly. As many of the class’s topics — healthcare reform, rising inequality, economic fluctuation — dominate the headlines and the world stage, their job as teachers of Ec 10 may be more important than ever.
Since assuming Mankiw’s mantle, Laibson and Furman have altered the course’s structure in significant ways. The class is now taught primarily in lecture rather than in section so that the professors transmit their information to the students directly.The pair has also worked to incorporate methods grounded in active learning, including an experiment where students simulated operating a bank.
Perhaps the most notable change, however, is one that the professors made to the content of the course itself. Laibson and Furman endeavored to make the course far more interdisciplinary than it had been in previous years; students not only learn about the basics of economics, they learn about policymaking, behavioral economics, and “the social problems that our society faces that have an economic dimension,” Laibson says.
For Laibson, teaching Ec 10 is not merely an academically enriching experience but a morally significant one as well. “I see a profound moral obligation to help the next generation of leaders understand the most basic economic principles that they will deploy in all the realms of leadership that they will find themselves in,” Laibson explains. “Whether it’s running an NGO, or whether it’s serving in Congress, or whether it’s serving as the superintendent of a school district, or whether it’s being the president of the United States, many of whom came from Harvard.”
Laibson and Furman’s interdisciplinary approach became even more crucial when adjusting the spring curriculum to address the emerging COVID-19 crisis. The newest version of the class includes visits on Zoom from some of the world’s key policy makers. In the email sent to Ec 10 students announcing the first speaker — Ben Bernanke, who visited class to share his thoughts on the Fed’s response to the pandemic — the professors write, “When we started planning Ec10 a year ago we wanted to make sure that it was as relevant as possible, including up-to-the-minute discussions to help you understand and participate in the economic debates of the day.”
The email also announced the upcoming visits of Jeremy C. Stein, chair of the Economics Department, Timothy F. Geithner, former Treasury Secretary and key player in resolving the global financial crisis, and Kenneth S. Rogoff and Gita Gopinath, the former and current chief economists of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These speakers will discuss different aspects of the current economic crisis, such as lenders of last resort and the issue’s international dimensions. These influential visitors are an addition to Mankiw, Lawrence H. Summers ’82, and Karen Dynan, chief economist at the Treasury Department under Obama, all of whom had already been slated to visit at the beginning of the school year.
While Laibson acknowledges the severity of both the global health and economic tragedy currently taking place, he says that “We are making the most of that opportunity to demonstrate the importance of these economic ideas, because it is these concepts and these policies that will prevent this recession from being even worse than it would be.”
Throughout the whole interview, Laibson’s voice never stops exuding enthusiasm and sincerity. He adds, “Understanding the scope of crisis, the depth of human suffering and the important role the policymakers have to try to alleviate these problems makes this course even more vital than ever.”
— Magazine writer Alex N. Wilson can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.