Introductory economics course at CSU focuses on the impacts of COVID-19

Screen shot of class

A group of seven Colorado State University faculty took a new approach to an Economics 101 course this fall, team-teaching it with a focus on the impacts of COVID-19.

Terry Iverson
Terry Iverson

A snippet of the class in which students discussed the monetary value of a human life with Associate Professor Terry Iverson was featured in an article in The New Yorker this month and The Denver Channel.

But the course,  which was delivered remotely, was much more wide-ranging than that. The faculty from the Department of Economics each taught a section of the class, covering their particular areas of expertise. Those included impacts on marginalized groups, food production/agriculture, and higher education. There was even a section on “greening” the post-COVID economy with sustainability efforts, a section taught by renowned environmental economist Ed Barbier.

Iverson was the one who proposed the idea of team-teaching the COVID-19 course late last spring, and he served as lead instructor for the 60 students in the class.

“The idea was to use COVID-19 as a prism, or a mirror, to look at our existing socioeconomic systems, in particular the increasing precarity of work, and the dual threat to lives and livelihoods posed by the pandemic,” said Professor Ramaa Vasudevan, another instructor in the course.

Ramaa Vasudevan
Ramaa Vasudevan

Competing interests

In the conversation highlighted by The New Yorker, students offered their initial ideas on how much money a life is worth as they pondered a dilemma that many sectors of society have grappled with over the past year: How do you balance public health with economic health? What is the right compromise between saving lives and saving jobs?

Professors Alex Bernasek and Elissa Braunstein, the head of the department, also had roles in teaching the course.

They agreed that the pandemic not only created new inequalities, but exacerbated existing ones that were lying just under the surface of a brittle economy. They pointed out that working women — especially women of color — have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19, because women are more likely to be the primary caregivers for relatives. This includes their own children, many of whom have been schooled from home in 2020.

Elissa Braunstein
Elissa Braunstein

Braunstein, whose section of the course covered the “care economy,” explained that the pandemic has forced many women to make choices between child care and their jobs, resulting in higher levels of unemployment or underemployment.

Vasudevan said that the class went beyond looking at things like race and gender to incorporate social relations of class and labor. She also compared and contrasted the Fed’s response to the financial meltdown in 2020 with its response to the Great Recession of 2008, to explain the social power of finance in the economy.

Impacts in Colorado

Bernasek said that in Colorado particularly, Hispanic women have been one of the groups most adversely affected by the pandemic. Tourism is a key sector of the state’s economy, she noted, and the service/hospitality industry — from restaurants and bars to hotels — has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19, especially in rural and mountain Colorado counties that rely heavily on visitor dollars.

Bernasek added that in the section she taught with Professor Steven Shulman, they even covered how higher education is funded in Colorado, with colleges and universities like CSU becoming more dependent on tuition revenue as state funding has shriveled in recent decades.

Alex Bernasek
Alex Bernasek

“The students were definitely introduced to things they didn’t understand before,” Bernasek said. “It was fun to work together and coordinate to bring in our different perspectives.”

For one of the students’ final assignments, Iverson had them pretend that it was last August and they were writing a policy proposal for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on what to require of CSU, given what they know now about the pandemic and their experience as students this semester.

Harkening back to the question of what a life is worth, Iverson wrote in the assignment: “In thinking about these issues, please take into account the university’s moral obligations to its students, its health and safety obligations to the public, and the existing economic constraints that the university faces.”

The Department of Economics is part of CSU’s College of Liberal Arts.