Holy Cross’s Economics Course Explores the Intricacies of Inequality

“What is the opportunity cost of buying an iPhone? Kolleen Rask, professor of economics, asks her class. “You wouldn’t be able to buy other products, would you? “

In the case of this conversation, the term “opportunity cost” refers to the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when an option is chosen.

“What is the opportunity cost of a mother in Malawi buying diarrhea medicine for one of her children? Murmurs circulate in the classroom. “His other children are not eating.

This rhetorical question is just one of the many ways Rask asks his students to think outside the box in his course, Economics of Inequality. The course, first held last fall with 48 students divided into two sections, was designed by Rask.

“I was looking for issues that I thought would be really interesting for students and we heard a lot about inequality,” says Rask. “It’s been going through my head for a while, but I didn’t have a structured understanding of the problem. So I have spent a lot of time over the past year studying inequality research. I finally decided that I could put together a course and try to make it work.

Once word of the course spread across campus, other majors and concentrations felt that it could meet their needs as well. Now, with some expansion, the course also incorporates material relevant to the Major in International Studies and the Peace and Conflict Studies concentration.

With a heavier-than-usual reading load, Rask runs the course differently from many others at Holy Cross – she treats it like a graduate course. In addition to the weekly readings, each student is responsible for writing a summary of two readings per semester. This way, says Rask, the students have help revising the readings.

The students, in turn, took the course and took it.

“You usually don’t have that many opportunities to chat in an economics class,” says Rask. “So for me it was really fun. “

For Darwin Contreras ’21, one of the most important points is that there is much more to inequality than the mere disparity of wealth.

“Inequality is more intrinsic to our society than we might think because America is seen as meritocratic,” he says. “During the course, we learned how inequalities undermine this meritocratic society that we believe we have created.”

The course also allowed students to explore topics that they are passionate about.

“I’m particularly interested in gender diversity in the labor market, and this course has allowed me to delve deeper into the economic, social and political dimensions of that,” says Bridget Alkin ’21. “And with the mix of economics and international studies specializations in the classroom, the environment creates a dialogue for learning from different perspectives. “

And for students like Alkin, the course emphasized that economists can push for meaningful change.

“I improved my ability to make concrete connections between social issues and political ideas,” she says. “The complexities of inequality, opportunity and access that I have been exposed to throughout the semester reinforce why I study economics and how I can actively promote change. “

Course Catalog

Students of the economics of inequalities connect with Kolleen Rask. Photo by Avanell Brock

ECON 299: Economics of inequality

Professor: Kolleen Rask

Department: Economy

The description: Growing economic inequality of income, wealth and opportunity has become a burning political issue. Inequality itself is multifaceted, so we will consider a variety of dimensions, including racial, gender, geographic, educational and international aspects of inequality. Anecdotes abound, but unfortunately few of us have carefully examined the empirical evidence or theoretical analysis of these phenomena. This semester we will be looking at both.

Meeting hours: Tuesday and Thursday 11-12.15 p.m.; 12:30 p.m. to 1:45 a.m.

Classroom: Stein 302

Mandatory reading: “Inequality in the 21st Century” edited by David B. Grusky and Jasmine Hill (Routledge, 2018); “Capital in the 21st Century” by Thomas Piketty (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2014)

Missions: Readings; oral presentation; abstracts of articles; two mid-term exams

Notes: Abstracts of articles, oral presentation, two mid-term exams, final exam

About the teacher: Kolleen Rask is professor of economics at Holy Cross. His research interests include the economics of transition, economic development, international trade, food resources, and the history of economic thought. She received a double bachelor’s degree in economics and Russian from Williams College and a doctorate. in Economics from Yale University. Prior to Holy Cross, she was a teaching assistant at Yale University and taught at Mount Holyoke College. She has been a member of the Sainte-Croix faculty since 1989.

Written by Jane Carlton for the Winter 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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