Part [part not set] of 9 in series "Online courses per topic"

In the first post in this series I looked into foundational courses in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) that help you reflect on the morality of markets. In this post I will present five courses that deepen your knowledge on economic growth, (in)equality and well-being. The following courses are introduced:

  1. Economic Growth and Distributive Justice, Part I – The Role of the State
  2. Economic Growth and Distributive Justice, Part II – Maximize Social Well-being
  3. [Economic] Inequality and Democracy
  4. Challenging Wealth and Income Inequality
  5. Global Prosperity Beyond GDP
  6. Social Well-being

Probably no course on such controversial topics is completely politically and morally neutral. Have I overlooked courses taught by universities that give a different perspective? Let me know.

Last update

This post was last updated with a new course in May 2020.

1. Economic Growth and Distributive Justice, Part I – The Role of the State

This course on economic growth and distributive justice, so the description says, “is founded upon the elemental idea that the role of the state is to maximize the well-being – or simply the happiness – of its residents.” This idea is certainly not uncontroversial, but it makes for an interesting point of departure. The course – see also the video on top of this post – includes four parts:

  1. “What do we need a state for?
  2. The relationship between efficiency and distributive justice
  3. Demonstrating the implications of different ethical theories
  4. Distributive justice: measurement and implications”

The course

touches upon the essence of important concepts like efficiency and equity, inequality and poverty, gross domestic product, tax evasion and tax planning; it presents the work of Nobel Laureate James Mirrlees and his followers – promoting a coherent system that integrates tax and government expenditures to maximize social welfare; and illuminates a range of high-profile issues from their economic angle:

  • Climate change: the atmosphere and oceans as public goods, and how smart (Pigovian) taxation can be used to combat the rapidly increasing threats to our planet;
  • Technology as the engine of economic growth;
  • Taxing the rich: How can we mitigate the growing inequality problem? Should we impose a global tax on capital?

2. Economic Growth and Distributive Justice, Part II – Maximize Social Well-being

This follow-up course on economic growth and distributive justice is very much focused on taxation as a means to maximize social well-being – so correcting the outcomes of the market by redistribution. This course’s deep dive in the economic aspects of taxation gives you handles to reflect on its desirability, and take both economic growth and distributive justice into account when making tax policy choices. Topics discussed in this course are:

  1. The excess burden of taxation
  2. Tax incidence: who bears the economic burden of tax?
  3. Progressivity: definition and ways to achieve
  4. Low income, low ability and the Optimal Income Tax Model
  5. Designing the tax and transfer system that maximizes social well-being

The focus on taxation is not surprising, as professor Yoram Y. Margalioth, who teaches this course, is an expert on tax policy and public finance. He works at the Faculty of Law of Tel Aviv University (Israel). The goals of both courses are, according to the course description, the following:

  • better understand economic issues presented in the media
  • form an informed opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of presented social economic policies
  • define and measure inequality and poverty
  • define the connection between inequality (income, wealth) and economic growth
  • explain the foundations of economic growth
  • design a tax and transfer system to maximize the happiness of individuals

3. [Economic] Inequality and Democracy

The central issue that the course Inequality and Democracy adresses:

Most countries are getting more and more unequal. But the core of democracy is political equality: that everyone should have an equal say in how their country is run. Can we really expect these things to go together? Can people have equal political power while economic inequality grows and grows?

It is an interdisciplinary course, taught by Rutger Claassen of Utrecht University (The Netherlands), that combines insights from politics, philosophy, economics, history and law. More concretely, the topics addressed are:

  • The rise of economic inequality
  • Property rights and the corporation
  • Democracy: Its value and history
  • Campaign finance and lobbying
  • Tax avoidance and capital flight
  • Alternatives to our economic system”

As for the target group, according to the organizers this course “is for anyone looking for an accessible introduction to these topics. You might a concerned citizen, or someone who works in a field like politics, media, education, government or law. The difficulty level is similar to the first-year of an undergraduate degree. No prior knowledge is assumed.

4. Challenging Wealth and Income Inequality

The course ‘Challenging Wealth and Income Inequality’ was created by The Open University (UK) and is hosted on the FutureLearn platform. Where the second course discussed in this post is very much focused on taxation as a mean to bring about equality, this course takes a more diverse approach. According to the course description, “you’ll explore many different alternatives to achieve a more equal world for generations to come.” To the degree that it covers the same ground as the first two courses, it may be more accessible to those without an economics background. The course covers the following ground:

“This free online course will explore the growing concerns surrounding rising inequality in income and wealth in developed countries. You’ll scrutinize claims that the baby boomer generation has had it all, in terms of pension deals and affordable houses, while social and political changes have left younger generations struggling to find security for their accommodation and retirement income. You’ll examine the causes and implications of growing economic inequalities and what can be done about them, by individuals, communities and governments.”

In a blog post that the teachers of this course wrote, they promise that the course “teases out the controversies and scrutinizes a number of popular myths“, under which they include the following:

  1. “Income inequalities are good for economic growth”
  2. “A growing gap between rich and poor in each country is an inevitable effect of globalization”
  3. “Wealth will always trickle down”
  4. “Private pensions are the best way to provide financial security in old age”
  5. “The only way to tackle housing inequality is to provide financial support for buyers”
  6. “Income differences are justified as long as there is equality of opportunity”

The course promotion video above mentions “the perverse impacts that both governments and markets may have” and promises to investigate “alternatives for market capitalism.”

5. Global Prosperity Beyond GDP

The course Global Prosperity beyond GDP looks at

other approaches to defining success for society, examining how we must aim for a broader notion of prosperity at both a personal and planetary level.”

This is what you will learn in the course:

  • Justify the need for a re-examination of the way we look at economics, and the role it plays in guiding society
  • Gain an understanding of the origin of GDP and the context from which it emerged
  • Gain an understanding of new approaches to measurement of success
  • Describe what a framework of change is, and why they exist
  • Recognise the potential for building a new economy that works better for people and the planet

The course is taught by Henrietta Moore, Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity, and was developed by University College London. It is meant for “anyone concerned with global issues and the unprecedented challenges of the 21st Century. It aims to inspire students, entrepreneurs, and citizens with a positive picture of what we are capable of with just a little bit of re-direction. No prior knowledge of the subject is needed.”

6. Social Well-being

Nobel prize winner in economics Amartya Sen in 1979 gave a famous lecture on the question ‘equality of what?’ In his work he criticizes the focus on income and economic production when discussing inequality and its acceptability. Well-being is, according to him, a more appropriate yard stick. This course on social well-being offer a broad and general perspective on well-being:

Since the financial crisis, there has been an increased interest in moving away from GDP and wealth as measures of national and individual performance […] Instead, more explicit attention is being paid to well-being around the world, and how we can promote it at individual, local, national and international levels.”

The course investigates well-being at different levels:

  • “Personal and interpersonal: what are the main ways of thinking about well-being as a whole? What are the key domains and components of personal well-being?
  • Organisational and community: how do communities and organizations facilitate well-being? What is community vitality? What is a healthy organizational climate?
  • National and international: What is national well-being and how can we measure and promote it?

As such, this final course has less of an economic angle and is less focused on the national level than the previous courses. It may thus nicely complement them. Targets groups of this course are (1) “human resources (HR) professionals, who are keen to embrace well-being and purpose, to improve staff satisfaction and productivity”; (2) “social planners from the public and third sector, who want to address the social and economic factors that affect well-being at a community level”; (3) “policy makers and civil servants, who wish to measure well-being or understand the life outcomes that matter most to people when developing policy.”

The course, hosted on the FutureLearn platform, is initiated by the University of Edinburgh (UK). However, a range of organizations has contributed, including including Oxfam, Carnegie UK Trust, Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Volunteering Scotland. The course team has research experience with “topics such as happiness and subjective well-being, and the impact of the welfare state on them.”

Series "Online courses per topic":

Do you feel like you have enough knowledge to contribute to debates in the area of the ethics of markets, economics and business? If not, this series of blog posts introduces ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) that you can take from anywhere in the world.

Articles in this series:
  1. GLOBALIZATION & FREE TRADE – Six Online Courses
  2. MARX, MARXISM & COMMUNISM – Six Online Courses
  4. FINANCE, MONEY and BANKING – Six Online Courses
  5. HOW MARKETS WORK – Five Online Economics Courses
  7. BUSINESS ETHICS – Five Online Courses
  9. PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS and ECONOMICS – Six Foundational Online Courses