Sunday, December 2, 2007

Next - post Restless Legs Syndrome history

Way back in the twentieth century, I acquired a fairly basic economics education, but I haven't really kept up with the field since then. So I was moved to investigate things when I read this blog post from Greg Mankiw, an economics professor at Harvard.

A friend recently called to my attention an article called Economic Indoctrination, which takes a similar approach to my principles text. The author, a cofounder of the "post-autistic economics movement," tries to portray my book as right-wing propaganda.

This is not the first time my text has been criticized for being biased. When President Bush appointed me to be CEA chair, some members of the political right opposed the nomination because my textbook was too Keynesian and not sufficiently sympathetic to their supply-side views. I suppose the symmetry in the attacks suggests I am getting things about right.

When I teach introductory economics, either in the classroom or in my textbook, I view myself as an ambassador for the economics profession. I try to represent the economic mainstream, not my personal political views. Some students may view the economic mainstream as right of center. That assessment is probably correct, at least as judged by the universe of college professors. But the job of an introductory course is to present, as honestly as possible, the consensus of the profession.

But forget the political games; what the heck is post-autistic economics? According to Wikipedia:

PAE has challenged standard neoclassical assumptions and incorporated ideas from sociology and psychology into economic analysis. Specifically, the notions of utility theory, rational choice, production and efficiency theory (Pareto optimality), and game theory have been criticised....

Incidentally, the term "autistic" is not being used in a medical sense, but it used to represent "closed-mindedness."

So let's look at the beginning of Economic Indoctrination:

You might not have heard of N. Gregory Mankiw. The Harvard economics professor and former adviser to George W. Bush is one of the most gifted economists of our generation. He is also one of the most effective and talented propagandists of our times. His target: young economics students. His field of operation: the world’s universities. His weapon: the best selling textbook in the world....

But what is most worrisome is that Mankiw’s text presents economics as a unified discipline, entirely committed to the neoliberal agenda. Mankiw believes that markets are the solution to everything – and he would like students to think likewise. According to Mankiw, if a problem persists, it can only be for one of two reasons: the market is imperfect, or it is inexistent. No other explanation for persisting economic or social problems is permitted.

Oh, oh, evil non-diverse totalitarian thinking. What is the solution?

In 2003, a protest against a similar course then proposed by professor Marty Feldstein, an ex-adviser to President Reagan, led to the creation of an alternative intro economics course, taught by radical economist Steve Marglin. But while Mankiw’s course gives the required credits to students, Marglin’s does not. As a result, Mankiw has around 800 students, and Marglin 100.

An obvious example of inefficiencies in the market, since presumably "Jim-Bob's Progressive School" could provide students with the desired credit for the Marglin course...but I digress.

Marglin's concern is with the community, not the individual. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Marglin's forthcoming book:

The first-century Jewish sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] 1:14, in Harlow 1989, 607). The claims of the individual and the claims of the community conflict. And that’s not a bad thing: this tension is normal, healthy, and even creative. It should not be resolved once and for all in favor of either the individual or the community. But over the past four hundred years, the ideology of economics has fostered both the self-interested individual and the market system, and has undermined, and continues to undermine, the community. This book analyzes how this has happened.

The rest of the chapter looks at various tensions between the community and the individual, including examples from Amish communities and NAFTA-affected places.

In essence, the entire classical orientation of standard economics is yet just another example of "dead white men" education that has been decried all over the place.

We'll see.

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