The Rebel Letter to Mankiw and some thoughts on education in economics

Yesterday I noted that 10 percent of Mankiw’s students walked out of his class to protest what they, rightly believed, to be a heavily biased introduction to economics.  I think the students are right.  Introductory courses are meant to introduce students to the discipline– both its orthodox core and its dissenting periphery.  Krugman has been consistently bemoaning the “dark age of economics” on his daily blog.  What is interesting is that I suspect Krugman is likely as guilty as Mankiw for the thin gruel that gets passed off as intellectual pluralism in the discipline of economics.  RatEx + sticky prices is hardly a different intellectual paradigm: it is a tweak.  Keen hits on some the ontological problems here.

I empathize with these students because like them when I took my intro to economics I was left asking myself if I could continue on studying a subject in which certain truths were baked in from the get go.  Here are a couple:

1) Minimum wages are bad because they decrease the level if employment and thus hurt low skilled workers.

2) Unions are bad because they similarly decrease employment via the premium on union wages.

3) Rent control is bad because it lowers rent and thus decreases private investment in housing leading to a shortage of housing.

In the end I simply quit the discipline and chose political science instead and then took as many credits as I could in the history of economic thought and directed readings with heterodox economists as I could shoe horn into my three degrees. In the end I pieced together a decent education in heterodox economics.  Although I wish I could have found an economics department where I could have been exposed to the best of heterodox thought along side the best of orthodox thought: Rowe, Steadman, Shaikh, Waldman, Mitchell, Dumenil, Lebowitz, Bowles, Fine, Hodgson, Lawson, Mirowski etc.

It is sad state of affairs that Intro to economics is not really and introduction to economic thought but rather an introduction to neoclassical economics.  The equivalent would be an introduction to political science where only rational choice theory was taught.  Political science is already a fairly conservative discipline and I recoil when I think about how much more conservative it would be if rational choice was the only intellectual paradigm I was seriously exposed to and if that paradigm dominated 85 95% of all hiring in the discipline.

From Mankiw’s perspective, and perhaps Krugman’s, I suspect the fact that 10 percent of the students self-identified as having heterodox instincts and declared their reluctance to continue on in economics as a feature and not a bug of the standard intro econ curriculum.

What a shame.  Below is the Rebel letter to Darth Vader Mankiw.

Dear Professor Mankiw—

Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.

As Harvard undergraduates, we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.

A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.

Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics. Many Harvard students do not have the ability to opt out of Economics 10. This class is required for Economics and Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrators, while Social Studies concentrators must take an introductory economics course—and the only other eligible class, Professor Steven Margolin’s class Critical Perspectives on Economics, is only offered every other year (and not this year). Many other students simply desire an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education. Furthermore, Economics 10 makes it difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively as it offers only one heavily skewed perspective rather than a solid grounding on which other courses can expand. Students should not be expected to avoid this class—or the whole discipline of economics—as a method of expressing discontent.

Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.

We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously.


Concerned students of Economics 10


7 thoughts on “The Rebel Letter to Mankiw and some thoughts on education in economics

  1. I’m sorry economics didn’t give you the answers you wanted. One wonders why you, as a first year undergraduate, felt that you had sufficient knowledge to judge minimum wage laws, unions, and rent controls to be “good things” and to reject any theory that didn’t conform to that judgement.

    • Because the extant literature did not actually provide any support for strong conclusions drawn in either direction and the historical record suggested otherwise. An occupational hazard of growing up in an academic family is that you don’t trust a single source just because it is in print. Thanks for stopping by.

      • If you really do have evidence against upward-sloping supply curves and downward-sloping demand curves, I suggest you write a paper and send it to the QJE. They’ll publish it, and you’ll be the most famous economic thinker ever for debunking centuries of economic thought.

      • Why would I try to get published something that has already been granted by luminaries in the field? For your edification on demand curves try reading: (Shafer, W. & Sonnenschein, H., (1982). ‘Market demand and excess demand functions’, in K.J. Arrow, and M. D. Intriligator (eds), Handbook of Mathematical Economics (Vol. II), North-Holland, Amsterdam, pp. 671-693). On supply curves: Blinder, A. S. (1998). Asking about prices: a new approach to understanding price stickiness. New York, Russell Sage Foundation., pp. 102, 105.

        Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I just finished a BA in Econ at Concordia University and it was absolutely horrific. We spent about 20 minutes total in my whole degree talking about Keynes (this as, the whole world was spending their way out of the 2008 crisis). And about 15 of that 20 minutes was trashing him (ie: Keynes is dead, it’s a silly theory, etc). I’m not even the biggest Keynesian to begin with (it makes a whole lot more sense than General Equilibrium) and was absolutely flabbergasted at the dire quality of what passes for economic thought. Dismal science doesn’t even scratch the surface.

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