Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mankiw’s Reply to the Walk-Out

Whatever my disagreements with Greg Mankiw’s op-ed self-defense today, I appreciate that he takes his dissident students seriously and refrains from slinging labels, pulling rank or other repressive tactics.  Protesters don’t always get this treatment.

That said, I think Mankiw fails to see two ways in which his introductory course, and other mainstream econ courses, impose a worldview that makes thinking constructively about economic problems less rather than more likely.

First, what does Mankiw say?  I would summarize his argument in this way:

1. His Ec 10 course at Harvard is not much different from other mainstream introductory econ courses taught in other colleges and universities.  (Nor by implication is his textbook so different either.)  It’s the tried and true.

2. Economics is essentially an organized, rigorous way of thinking; it allows its practitioners to adopt a wide range of positions, so long as they reason clearly and respect evidence.  There is no intrinsic bias to the discipline.

3. Even economists on the left, like Paul Samuelson, have been the object of criticism coming from Marxists and others outside the mainstream.  This shows that it is not Mankiw’s personal conservatism that has sparked the protest, but the discipline of economics itself.  (The implication is that replacing the Republican Mankiw with another professor more associated with the Democrats would not placate the protesters.)

Let’s take these in reverse order.  I think #3 is correct, although this bears mainly on how well the protesters understand what they are protesting.  If they think Ec 10 can remain a mainstream introductory course but shed its conservatism under new management, they are wrong.  In other words, this is not about Mankiw.  (I don’t know anything about his skills as a teacher, but nothing has been written that suggests that he is unfit for the job.)  Perhaps a good precedent is the protest of French students several years ago against “autistic economics”, which targeted content and not, despite the moniker, personality.

#2 is on shakier turf.  Mainstream economic concepts and tools are valuable and well worth knowing, but they also contain implicit biases.  The most fundamental of these is the assumption that individuals are connected to one another almost exclusively through markets—that the essential aspects of the economy can be understood by employing models that incarnate this assumption, relaxing it in only a few narrow instances.  What are the connections that are left out or radically downplayed?  Culture, politics, language, environment: the relationships between people, and between them and their material world, that are the objects of study in such fields as sociology, politics, organization theory, social psychology, anthropology, geography and so on.  The problem is not that there is a division of labor between disciplines; that’s how it should be.  It is that assuming that economic interactions can be studied apart from all the others leaves power and culture out of the equation.  (Literally.)  That’s a bias.  Of course, it is entirely possible to stick to mainstream economic thinking and harbor non-mainstream views on other matters, but that doesn’t mean that the bias has disappeared, only that it has been overcome.  There is a reason why exposure to economics, and especially the worldview-defining core of microeconomics, tends to shift student views, on average, in a libertarian direction.

Repeat: the solution is not to simply throw mainstream economics into the dumpster.  There is a lot of good, useful stuff, and students should be exposed to it.  But the assumptions should be discussed openly and honestly, so that students can develop a sense for when economics has more to say, when it has less, and how its insights can be combined with those from other intellectual traditions.

As for #1, Mankiw is right, and that’s the problem.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is a central narrative at the introductory level that has hardly changed in at least a generation, perhaps longer.  It presents a system of perfectly competitive markets composed of rational, unconnected agents as the benchmark, from which specific deviations, like externalities, behavioral anomalies, sticky prices, etc., are considered one at a time.  Most of the interesting and important work in economics is about these deviations.  If you added up all of this innovative research, you would have a composite picture that is exciting, relevant—and light years away from the introductory narrative.

A huge gap has opened up between the introductory course and the work professional economists are actually doing.  Each departure from the narrative is considered one at a time, even though research has chipped away at all of them.  Unfortunately, this feeds back to the self-understanding of the researchers themselves: they get their central narrative from the vision of Ec 10 (or 101 or whatever) and see their own work as deviating in just one specific way from the benchmark model.  (To get published, this is exactly what you need to show, that your novelty, taken in isolation, enhances the benchmark’s explanatory power.)  Thus the introductory course still looks like a distillation of the research frontier, even though, if you put all the research results together, you would have something quite different.  Consider, for instance, the vast amount of work that has gone into the analysis of cooperation and its relevance in a wide range of economic situations.  Is this work mainstream?  Yes.  Has it entered the core narrative?  No.  It’s just another wrinkle, taken up at one juncture and then put aside when the next wrinkle is introduced.

The introductory economics course is a big, big problem.  I hope the walkout adds to the pressure for a fundamental rethinking.


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