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Boyz and Scarface Shed Light on Economic Theory in May Term Course

Published: May 16, 2018
This two-week May Term, Daniel Diaz Vidal, UT assistant professor of economics, is using films like Scarface and The Big Short, and the Netflix series, Ozark, to help students better understand economic theory and several subfields like economics of crime, economic history and game theory.
This two-week May Term, Daniel Diaz Vidal, UT assistant professor of economics, is using films like Scarface and The Big Short, and the Netflix series, Ozark, to help students better understand economic theory and several subfields like economics of crime, economic history and game theory.
UT summer session courses are offered at the undergraduate and graduate levels in a variety of formats to help students accelerate degree completion and to explore elective areas of study.
UT summer session courses are offered at the undergraduate and graduate levels in a variety of formats to help students accelerate degree completion and to explore elective areas of study.

Economist Daniel Diaz Vidal loves economic theory but understands that things like the aggregate demand and aggregate supply models and the Solow growth model are kind of dry and mathematical. So he helps students think of the concepts through examples in film and video games.

“The ultimate goal is for them to understand that it’s technology, it’s capital, it’s human capital — our talent as individuals and our training and our skills — natural resources and the tools we have; those are the important things for economic growth,” said Vidal. “I also get them to realize that games and movies use reality and economic models to make the virtual or the game environment more interesting.”

Several of his students have made the connection in the online game Minecraft, where imagination is the only limit for building complex civilizations out of blocks.

“I was like absolutely, that is exactly what the game is all about. The game is built upon human existence and human experience, obviously because they try to make the game interesting,” Vidal said.

This two-week May Term, the UT assistant professor of economics is using films like Scarface and The Big Short, and the Netflix series, Ozark, to help students better understand economic theory and several subfields like economics of crime, economic history and game theory.

“The class is constantly thinking. This is not a class in which you learn an incredible amount of economic concepts, but this is a class in which from minute one until you leave, you’re constantly thinking about economics, about theory and about society and how it's structured,” said Vidal, an avid film enthusiast who loves spaghetti westerns. “You’re thinking about the films, you’re questioning what is this guy trying to tell me and what agenda is the guy trying to push, which is also something we try to teach in college — critical thinking.”

Colin Joseph ’19, an international business and finance major with minors in cybersecurity and criminology and criminal justice, was intrigued by the course in how film directors are able to portray complex economic theories in a manner that is easily understood by the audience watching the film. 

“I was surprised to learn of the deliberate effort that filmmakers make in choosing specific key elements (background, script, scene) to emphasize a specific economic issue at hand; the simplicity behind understanding how complex economic theories can actually be practically applied to everyday situations; and how much of a role external factors play in influencing film as it relates to economic theories, crime, technology and white-collar offenses,” Joseph said.

“Dr. Dan is very passionate and has given us an experience that will resonate, encouraging us to think critically about issues and understanding the causes not just the symptoms, which is a very valuable skill to have regardless of where you live or what you do for a living,” said Karim ElGuindi ’18, an international business and management major with a minor in economics.

The students have been meeting eight hours a day May 7–18, discussing theory in the mornings, watching movie clips or TV shows after lunch (stopping now and then to discuss what’s happening in the moment, modeling analytical skills) and then reflecting on the topic after. They’ve watched Cocaine Cowboys, a documentary about the drug trade that built Miami in the 1980s, and Boyz n the Hood, discussing the theory of rational choice, an economic principle based on the assumption that individuals choose a course of action that is most in line with their personal preferences.

“There's a kid who wants to go on to college, he's going to have a scholarship and ultimately gets shot buying milk in South Central Los Angeles. It is a reality that people get shot when they're going to buy milk. So when you talk about the American dream and how do people succeed, it's not all about how hard you work. The thresholds are different,” Vidal explained. “There are two variables. Indeed, one of them is how hard you work, but another one is your environment. The problem is not that it's one or the other, it’s one and the other. So if your hurdle is super high, no matter how strong you are maybe you can't jump over it in your lifetime.”

Andrew Henry ’19, a cybersecurity major from Philadelphia, said he’s learned more about the 2008 housing crisis after watching The Big Short and money laundering from Ozark.

“I use more critical thinking now when watching films,” said Henry. “Dr. Vidal has surpassed my expectations, because he challenges us to question everything and this has really helped in my day to day life.”

After watching Cocaine Cowboys, ElGuindi said he was surprised to learn about how crime markets and illegal activity shaped Miami and promoted its economic growth and prosperity.

“We also learned about why a person might make a rational decision to commit a crime in the society we live in today,” ElGuindi said. “Most importantly we learned about the underlying causes of unemployment and crime, what’s to come based on current social and technological changes, and the real issues to focus on when trying to work on social problems effectively.”

That’s exactly what Vidal was aiming for.

“The most important thing is to get students to think like an economist,” Vidal said. “That is, to view the complexity of the world and be able to disentangle the relationship between variables in a clear way.”

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