Envisioning the End of Capitalism: Economists Confront the Limits of Growth

Undergraduate Seminar, 25 students

In 2008, the world economy fell into the worst depression since the 1930s. Companies went bankrupt. People lost their homes. Unemployment rose, especially for youth. Most dramatically, the financial architecture of the world economy almost collapsed. Governments had to step in to save the day, and now, saddled with debts, those governments have implemented austerity measures. In response, protests broke out worldwide. Is this the end of capitalism? In this course we will look at some famous historical accounts of what the end of capitalism might look like. In the process, we will come to understand the unique features of the capitalist economy.

This course is divided into two parts. In the first part, we examine classic writings by the some of the greatest minds in economics and sociology. All of these authors begin from the premise that capitalism has been associated with a unique pattern of self-sustaining economic growth. In the second part of the course, we examine the results of recent historical research, which will help us evaluate the theories we discussed. At the end of the course, students will turn in a 10-15 page research paper. Using evidence derived from scholarly journal articles, they will argue that one of the authors we read in weeks 2-7 was either proven right or proven wrong by history.

Week 1. Introduction

Capitalism as self-sustaining economic growth

Week 2. Economic stagnation: Adam Smith

Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book I, Ch. 1-9, Book II, Ch. 3

Week 3. Overpopulation: Thomas Malthus

Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Ch. 1-16

Week 4. Unemployment: Karl Marx

Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Ch. 23-25

Week 5. Institutional failure: Joseph Schumpeter

Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Part II

Week 6. Success! Daniel Bell

Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Ch. 1 and 2

Week 7. Ecological crisis: Herman Daly

Daly, Steady State Economics, Ch. 1-8

Week 8. In-class debate: Who was right?

First essays due in class.

Week 9. Demographic transitions

UN, World Population Prospects, "Highlights"
Rogelio Fernandez Castilla, et. al., "Young People in an Urban World"

Week 10. Agricultural revolutions

UN-FAO, State of Food and Agriculture 2000, Parts I and II
Cristobal Kay, "Why East Asia Overtook Latin America"

Week 11. Deindustrialization

R. Rowthorn and R. Ramaswamy, "Deindustrialization: Causes and Implications"
William Baumol, "The Growing Share of Service Employment"

Week 12. Inequality and poverty

Robert Allen, "The Great Divergence" in Global Economic History
Branko Milanovic, "Global Inequality: From Class to Location"

Week 13. Slums and informality

UN-HABITAT, The Challenge of the Slums, Ch. 1-3
ILO, "Women and Men in the Informal Economy, Second Edition"
Mike Davis, "Planet of Slums"

Week 14. Climate Change

UN, Human Development Report 2007/8: Fighting Climate Change, Ch. 1 & 2

Week 15. Wrapping Up

Review and Project Presentations