What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

The Economic Lessons of a Prison Camp

March 26, 2014, 9:17 PM

Tim Harford presents two surprising examples when explaining how recessions work. A contributor to the Financial Times and author of five books, including his latest, The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Harford tells the story of the Washington, DC babysitting co-op. Sounds innocuous enough.

Unfortunately for the co-op, babysitters outnumbered demand. “No one’s able to get a job babysitting, because everyone’s just trying to work for everyone else,” he says. The co-op’s recession was solved when the babysitting committee cooled the jets of would-be babysitters by distributing more tokens—the currency that drove people to babysit in order to collect and then cash-in on tokens they needed to hire a sitter. Everything worked beautifully, says Harford, until the committee printed too many tokens, and the co-op was hit with hyperinflation.

It’s certainly tough to run an economy, as Harford points out. Watch Big Think’s interview with Harford to hear the example in full.

But what can a prisoner of war camp teach us about recessions? In his interview, Harford shares a little-known economic story from a prisoner camp in World War II. The prisoners developed a dynamic economy, especially given the circumstances. Based on exchange, the economy ran on prisoners bartering goods, which they received from International Red Cross packages, and services, like boot shining, that they were able to provide. “It was very sophisticated,” says Harford. “There was a futures market for bread.”

The British could have their beloved tea, and the French could access coffee. Everything seemed to be going well.

When the war impeded the Red Cross’s ability to deliver packages to the camp, the goods dried up, and the prisoners faced starvation. The economy was hit by an external shock.

According to Harford, the prison camp (the economic equivalent of an asteroid) and the babysitting co-op (internal policy) are what economists debate in regards to recessions and how to solve them.

“So when you hear economists arguing about whether there should have been a stimulus program, whether there should still be a stimulus program, what they're really arguing about,” says Harford, “Is the American economy more like the babysitting co-op or is it more like the prison camp?”


The Economic Lessons of a P...

Newsletter: Share: