Jim Tober

Economics—or political economy—looks at how diverse societies establish and maintain patterns of resource use and how those patterns affect the quality of peoples’ lives and the character of the world that surrounds them. The substantive concerns of the field are often summarized as what, how and for whom: 1) do we produce symphonies, or organ transplants, or Cheerios, or national defense? 2) do we rely on small-scale craft production or on large-scale mechanized production? Is production organized as for-profit, not-for-profit, cooperative, informal or government enterprise? 3) are goods and services distributed according to ability to pay in the marketplace, or by custom, or by collective and/or governmental criteria? How large are incomes and wealth, and how evenly are they distributed?

We can also ask about the subject in terms of ways of knowing or learning about the economy. Studying economics can mean: 1) studying the history of ideas about how economic systems work; 2) examining the history, present status and future prospects of particular economies; 3) collecting and analyzing data about economic performance; 4) designing policy to manage the economy or achieve goals related to social welfare or environmental quality, for example; and/or 5) building conceptual models to illuminate key relationships in a complex world.

The economics curriculum at Marlboro is designed to introduce and develop these approaches to the field. In addition, many of the most interesting ideas in the discipline today lie at the intersections with other disciplines, including psychology, anthropology, ecology, political science, sociology, history and philosophy.

In my teaching and research, I focus on historical, comparative and policy perspectives. I have a long-standing interest in environmental issues and sponsor many Plans in environmental studies as well as in economics. My research has examined the evolution of property rights in wildlife in 19th-century America, the politics of endangered species protection, the role of nonprofit organizations in the provision of social services, and issues of sustainability.

Areas of Interest for Plan-level Work:

  • Comparative economic systems
  • Economic development
  • Environmental history
  • U.S. economic history
  • Non-profit organizations
  • History of economic thought and theory
  • Environmental economics, policy and law
  • Tragedy of the commons

Starting Points (Basic and Introductory Courses)

This course seeks to convey a sense of the discipline of economics as a whole—its history, methods and substantive concerns. The course examines processes common to all systems (e.g., division of labor, production, exchange, growth) and it examines whole systems as modeled and as observed. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

We live in interesting and challenging economic times. The U.S. and much of the world are in prolonged recession, with high unemployment, flat or declining incomes for most people and great suffering. These are also times of great opportunity and great transition. Collapsed credit markets need to be revived, the role of government in the economy re-imagined, the relationship between workers and employers rethought and global economic relations reconsidered. This course offers an historical, institutional and theoretical introduction to the U.S. economy, its problems and prospects. You are invited to 1) become familiar with the essential features of the U.S. economy, 2) understand the basic elements of macroeconomic analysis and 3) develop and defend policy approaches to current economic challenges. What does the Federal Reserve do? What does GDP measure? Are we all Keynesians (again)? Who pays the taxes? How did capitalism arise as a dominant form of economic organization?  Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

An introduction to economics through an examination of production and exchange relationships at the local and community levels. Topics include barter, gift and market exchange; property rights and the tragedy of the commons; for-profit and not-for-profit production; money and local currencies; microfinance; and community development. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

Pursuing Interests (Intermediate and Thematic Courses)

This course surveys the current state of the natural environment, develops a conceptual framework for understanding the environmental choices that face us, and examines the policy setting within which those choices are presently made. Although primary focus is on the U.S., considerable attention is paid to global problems and policies. A fifth credit may be earned by preparation of a substantial term paper applying the perspectives of the course to a policy issue. Prerequisite: Previous work in social science or environmental studies, or permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 4

The nonprofit sector includes museums, international aid agencies, colleges, environmental NGOs, foundations, cooperatives, homeless shelters, youth groups, community development organizations, research institutions and health clinics, among others, but not all such organizations. And why these? This course surveys the political economy of nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and around the world—their diversity and scope, reason for being, sources of support and role in policy-making. Course readings will be supplemented by individual research projects. Prerequisite: Permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 4

Our engagement with wildlife ranges from visiting Sea World, to hunting deer, to supporting conservation organizations, to caring deeply about rare species we will never see. How can we make sense of the diverse ways in which people value and act toward wildlife? How, through custom, law and policy, can we manage the terms on which wild animals are pursued and protected? This course will address such topics as the U.S. Endangered Species Act, community-based wildlife management, market and non-market valuation and the ecology of environmental organizations. Prerequisite: Permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 4

An exploration of major environmental themes and issues in U.S. history, from colonial times to the present. The inquiry is organized around a series of case studies that address such issues as land and land-use control, water resources, toxic substances, wildlife and the environmental movement. Prerequisite: Permission of instructor    Intermediate | Credits: 4

This course examines changing ideas about land, competing claims over rights to land and resulting patterns of land use and land-use control, primarily in the U.S. The course offers an historical overview but focuses primarily on topics of contemporary interest: zoning, eminent domain, and land-use planning (examining the case of Marlboro, VT); the “public-private” divide and the “wise use” movement; the tragedy of the commons; patterns of human settlement; and economic geography. Prerequisite: Previous work in social science or environmental studies or permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 4

This course considers the theories and methods of contemporary neoclassical microeconomics and of selected alternative approaches. We will examine prices, markets and market failures primarily from the perspectives of individual and organizational decision-makers and in consideration of efficiency and equity, among other performance criteria. Topics include determination of prices, individual and collective decision-making, the organization and regulation of production and the distribution of income. The course offers solid grounding in the theory and methods of economics as required for further work in the field; it is required or recommended for many graduate and professional programs in business, law and policy studies. Prerequisite: Introductory economics or permission of instructor    Intermediate | Credits: 4

Political economists, politicians and pundits offer various and seemingly contradictory analysis and advice on the present state of the economy and the urgent policy challenges we face. Can we reconcile or at least appreciate these differences, and can we arrive at our own informed understanding? This course draws on insights from economic theory, institutional analysis and current events in considering such aspects of macroeconomic structure and performance as inflation, unemployment, growth, taxation, inequality, debt, money and credit, exchange rates and trade policy. This course and Intermediate Microeconomics together constitute the core sequence in economics normally required for Plan work in the field. Prerequisite: Introductory economics or permission of instructor    Intermediate | Credits: 4

This seminar is primarily for seniors in economics who seek a forum for peer commentary on Plan writing and discussion of the challenges of discipline-based research. It is open to other economics students on Plan, or other students, based on the suitability of a research proposal. May be taken for 1-4 credits. May be repeated for credit.     Advanced | Credits: Variable

Good Foundation for Plan

Students considering Plans in economics must expect to acquire facility with the dominant paradigms of the discipline. The most important courses in this regard are intermediate-level Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, not only because they provide the tools necessary for most applied work in the field but also because their perspectives are so well entrenched that most critical analysis in economics assumes familiarity with them. Microeconomics, in particular, is also highly recommended for students preparing for graduate study in business, law, international affairs, natural resources management or public policy. Research Seminar in Economics is also recommended for Plan students. Some facility with algebra is required for almost all work in economics. Statistics is strongly recommended. Students considering graduate study in economics should inquire about preparation in economic theory, mathematics and statistics.


Sample Tutorial Topics

  • American Labor in the Global Economy
  • Assessing U.S. Urban Redevelopment Programs
  • Collaborative Planning in the Northern Forest
  • Contemporary Policy Challenges in Latin American Economic Development
  • Institutional Economics and Collective Action
  • Property, Piracy and the Production of Music
  • The Economics of Discrimination
  • Comparative Study of National Sustainability Initiatives
  • The Implementation of Large-scale Alternative Energy Projects
  • Industrial Market Structures
  • Mining Policy in Argentina and Chile
  • Policy Responses to Economic Inequality in Brazil
  • Political and Economic Perspectives on the American Labor Market
  • The Theories and Practices behind the Pascua Lama Mine
  • World Food Economies