John List

John List, shown here presenting the first segment of the new video course Economics for Everyone, wants to get high school students—and everyone else—interested in economics. (Video still from Economics for Everyone)

Micro lessons

John List and Steven Levitt create a bite-sized version of their College econ course.

A handsome, well-appointed office at the University of Chicago. To the right, soft light filters through tall leaded-glass windows; to the left, an old-fashioned blackboard stands behind an impeccably tidy desk.

In the foreground sits John List, the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College, gazing straight at the camera. List wears a blue crewneck sweater, blue jeans, and a friendly, welcoming expression. “Is college worth it?” he asks, as driving electronic music plays. “Why do some inner-city schools fail, while others prosper? Do people really care about fairness? These are the kinds of questions that can be addressed”—a funky bass line comes in—“if you think like an economist.”

It’s the first installment, “Optimization,” of Economics for Everyone, a video version of the eponymous course that List has cotaught with Steven Levitt, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, since 2017.

During the short video, which clocks in at just eight minutes and 34 seconds, List defines some basic economic terms. For example, positive economics “is what is,” he explains, while normative economics “is what should be.” His example of a normative statement: “I think the federal minimum wage should be higher.”

List also defines three key principles of economics: optimization (people will choose the best option they can), equilibrium (his example: two lines in a grocery store will even out as customers choose the shorter line), and empiricism (economists come up with theories, then test them with data).

As List explains optimization more fully, it becomes clear which audience he has in mind: “Think about your teachers or your parents,” he says. “They’re interested in what drives you to study harder.” Circling back to the question about the value of college, he sneaks in a pep talk: “Now I think if you’re watching this video, college is probably for you.”

“They’re really targeted to high school kids,” List says during a Zoom interview from his actual office (his desk in reality features a tall stack of papers leaning as rakishly as the Tower of Pisa). “There are a lot of high schools that can’t afford programs like this.” The goal is, he says, “to broaden the reach and the diversity of people who are taught economics.”

To attempt to connect with their young target audience, the Economics for Everyone team also made TikTok videos featuring economics concepts. In one video, a man in a coffee shop is having a loud phone conversation; another man (played by the same guy, in standard TikTok style) admonishes him for “inflicting some negative externalities on others.”

Nonetheless, “absolutely, the course is meant for everyone,” List says, not just high school students. At Walmart Inc., where List is chief economist, store associates have asked him about the videos.

The second video, “Equilibrium,” is also shot in a cozy, comfortable office. To the left, a wood-paneled wall and marble fireplace; to the right, another improbably neat desk and a poster that advises, “Work hard & be nice to people.” This time Min Sok Lee, AM’08, PhD’08, assistant senior instructional professor of economics, sits in the foreground, wearing a black argyle sweater, rolled-up jeans, and sneakers. “How do buyers and sellers interact?” Lee asks. “What happens when everyone is trying to optimize?” In fact, Lee’s “office” is the same room—the faculty seminar room, next to the Starbucks in Saieh Hall—but shot from a different angle and styled with items borrowed from Lee’s real-life office instead of List’s.

List and Levitt came up with the idea of Economics for Everyone, a one-quarter elective for College students, about 15 years ago, List says. The intention was to introduce basic economics concepts to students who will probably never take another economics course. “Econ is not in the Core,” List says, “which I think is a shame.”

According to the course description, Economics for Everyone: Micro (there’s also a separate quarter-long course on macroeconomics) focuses on “big economic ideas, without the math.” Two hundred and eighty students—the maximum number of people who can fit in Kent 107, List says—are enrolled in Winter 2024.

The video version of micro consists of eight units—which include core videos, supplemental explainers, and lists of key terms—with titles like “Why Markets Are Great,” “The Buyer’s Problem,” and “The Economics of Discrimination.” In addition to List, Levitt, and Lee, contributors to the series include postdoctoral scholar Angela Doku and Greg Kaplan, the Alvin H. Baum Professor in Economics and the College.

The macro section of the online course is still in progress. Videos should be live by late 2024, List says.

But if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, why are the videos free? “It’s not free,” List points out. “People still have to spend their time to watch it. There is an opportunity cost of time.” (He covers opportunity cost—the idea that by choosing one option, of necessity you have to forego other options—in unit one’s fourth video, “Thinking on the Margin.”)

“I want everyone who will watch this to get it for free. I want the entire demand curve,” List says. The goal is not to maximize profits, but “to maximize exposure. I want as many people in the world [as possible] to be exposed to the Chicago way of thinking about economics.”