Robert Wenzel’s Critique of Episode 2

Surprisingly, Crash Course has not released their video for episode 3 yet.  I’m pretty sure they record all of the episodes in advance, so I can’t explain why they didn’t release episode 3 Wednesday evening as per usual.  Perhaps the topic of episode 3, which was mentioned in the last video to be “how economic systems contribute to differences between countries,” contained some errors, and they are fixing it last minute.  I’ll try to get to the bottom of this by tweeting at the co-hosts and official Crash Course Twitter handle.

I’d like to take this time to talk about Robert Wenzel’s observations of the second video.


First, Bob also recognized the mediocre example of a pizzeria, where it isn’t so obvious that people have different skill sets, to describe specialization in trade.  He recommends a clearer example:

[People] might become doctors, they might become lawyers, they might become creative movie producers.  If they spend five years studying it and then ten years in the field, they’ve got a lot of knowledge.  That’s a lot of intellectual capital invested in that sector, so it doesn’t really make sense for them to go to another field.  In general, once someone starts down a road of specialization like that, it makes a lot of sense to generally stay in that direction.

Bob also mentions a school of economic thought that rejects specialization:

Karl Marx really didn’t understand specialization.  He thought that there would be a society where in the mornings, someone would be making pizza, in the afternoon working on a farm, and later in the day, working at a construction site.

The Marxian idea, in fact, would work best in a pizzeria.  One employee could very easily go from preparing the vegetables to making the dough to sweeping the floor without much difficulty.  It would be much more difficult to switch from farming to telecommunications consulting.

It’s not that you can quickly put people from this place to that place to the next.  It is knowledge of specific localities, it’s the knowledge that someone is familiar with doing something, it’s knowledge because someone has greater intellect or skills or whatever it might be.

I’m not a Marxist, but I would have liked for Crash Course to talk about different economic schools of thought on the subject of specialization.  Am I right, comrades?


Like what I wrote?  Hate what I wrote? Drop some feedback in the comments.

Also, sign up for the newsletter (in the main menu on the top), I just added it today.

Episode #2 in Review: Specialization and Trade

Crash Course’s second episode was pretty agreeable.  It explained why free trade is mutually beneficial, gave a good explanation of the Production Possibilities Frontier, and it even knocked down common political arguments that are demonstrably false.  Let’s start with their explanation of specialization.

Specialization is a Pizzeria?

pizzaCrash Course gives a visualization of specialization with the analogy of a pizza-making assembly line.  I hope that this example is effective for those unfamiliar with specialization, but what I was thinking when I saw this was “couldn’t each of these guys very easily switch to a different position at the pizzeria without much fuss?  Is the guy cutting vegetables really that much better at doing this task than anyone else?”  I wasn’t sure if this example was advocating for specialization or just an assembly line business model.


Their best example comes from showing what one person would have to do to make a pizza by himself.  This is a modern take on Leonard Read’s I, Pencil, and it gets the point across faster even than it would take you to read Read’s short essay.

National Trade


Understanding the Production Possibilities Frontier is challenging.  They explained the model quickly, and although I was able to follow along in real time, I needed to pause the video after this segment to visualize and absorb the lesson again in my head.

Their conclusion from the model was direct:

You might hear a politician or someone on the news argue that international trade destroys domestic jobs, and even though it may seem counterintuitive, economists for centuries have argued that trade is mutually beneficial to whoever is trading.

To be fair though, international trade may destroy particular domestic jobs, but not the total number of jobs.  In Crash Course’s example, the American shoe industry would suffer as a result of free trade, and the airplane industry would grow.  People hate making less money or getting laid off, even if you explain to them that the economy is better off for it.  Just ask the cab industry.

Let’s go back to that final line: trade is mutually beneficial to whoever is trading.  While true, it’s important to compare this statement to the opposite argument: trade is a zero-sum game where one party wins and the other loses.

There are a fair amount of people who believe that as people get rich, these people are necessarily making others poorer (the money has to come from somewhere right?).  With the exception of thieves, who actually do increase their wealth at the expense of someone else’s wealth, people get rich because a lot of other people have wanted to trade with them.  Bill Gates is not rich because people are poor, he’s rich because a lot of people value his products more than holding on to cash.

The episode gave two good examples of the national benefits of free trade: Japan and Taiwan.  While these examples are good, Japan and Taiwan also have a fair amount of natural resources, and Japan has historically been a developed country.  Instead of these examples, I would look at Hong Kong and Singapore.  These countries are closer to the size of a city, with very few natural resources, and just 60 years ago would be considered poor underdeveloped countries.  But from decades of free trade policies (they are currently #1 and #2 most economically free countries in the world), these tiny countries now have a greater GDP per capita than the European Union’s average.

Not much objection in this week’s episode, and we even have a teaser of next week:

Next time we’ll show you how some of these ideas get turned into economic systems, and how these systems contribute to differences between countries.

Looking forward to hearing about Venezuela.