The fun way to learn economics

Aqilah Rahman

Imagine that you run a food bank. Every few weeks, you receive supplies from a charity organisation and you distribute them to the people in need. It’s a really important job; and you make sure to provide them with as much fresh produce as you can get your hands on.

Now imagine that one day, you receive a phone call from a charity organisation. They’ve got a huge donation for you. Good news, right? It’s about time to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables, except they are only giving you pickles. Truckload of cucumbers in salt water and nothing else.

There’s nothing wrong with pickles, of course. But there are only so many ways you can make a meal out of pickles. Sure you can eat it straight from the jar, but there’s the high sodium content to leave you wary.

Meanwhile, another food bank in a different area is also receiving a huge donation.

Potatoes, to be exact. But they already have a lot of them. Now both food banks have a problem because people aren’t getting the food they need.

The question now is: How do you ensure each food bank has what it needs?

The food bank problem is based on an actual incident in the United States (US) a decade ago. It wasn’t an easy problem to solve, and for a long time, these American food banks “just lived with it”.

The above example is one of the many scenarios presented in Planet Money Summer School, a podcast series on economics, hosted by Robert Smith. There are nine episodes altogether, with each segment running for half an hour, discussing real-life problems from its previous episodes.

Economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, as well as other guest speakers, are there to explain the economic principles behind each story.

For example, the food bank episode covers supply and demand, local knowledge problem and gains from trade. Other topics in the series include opportunity cost, tariffs, income tax, targetted advertising and insurance. These descriptions don’t sound too exciting but the series was chockfull of information and stories, and sometimes historical facts.

Who would have known that Donald Duck had a role in the US history of income tax? And that a certain shoe company added fuzzy fabric to the sole of its shoes so they could be categorise under slippers instead of sneakers to avoid paying high tax?

As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. I had to agree while I was listening to the podcasts. While the series was highly engaging as a whole, there were times when I found it difficult to follow along. I have no background in economics. So I struggled a bit to figure out what the hosts meant, especially when they were explaining the more technical aspects, instead of just telling a story.

But I did get the gist for the most part, thus thoroughly enjoyed the series.

Overall, Planet Money Summer School is a fun, educational crash course in economics.

The content is light, and the series doesn’t assume all participants had prior economics knowledge. If you’re up for it, take a multiple-choice quiz after finishing the series to test your understanding. There are eight questions altogether. If you pass, you get an image of a tongue-in-cheek “fake diploma” that is “valid for bragging rights only”.

Planet Money Summer School is free for all, and you can check it out on the Planet Money website.