Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy The Economics Classroom

The student walkout from Greg Mankiw's introductory economics course at Harvard has received a lot of attention. Economics has also come under the spotlight because of its use to support the deregulation of the banking industry and its advocacy for the use of derivatives that led to the financial crisis. In this article Dani Rodrik tells us that economics at the graduate level is more nuanced and more able to provide qualified answers to important economic questions. This contrasts sharply with the picture that one gets in introductory economics courses. In fact, Minkiw's defense of his course was based on pedagogy. His course is similar to most introductory courses that only provide the foundation for more advanced courses that are devoted to the nuances.

One of the problems with this defense of economics instruction is that most students do not take courses beyond the introductory level. For them, introductory economics is economics. The text books are very similar in content, and most of the interesting topics that would engage students are not explored in depth. Moreover, at the advanced levels there is no single discipline of economics. The nuanced questions, and the answers provided, are too often colored by the political inclinations of the faculty or an economics department. For example, there is a growing concern today about income inequality. For some economists it does not exist; for some it is simply the result of market forces, and for others it is a threat to democracy. The same can be said for the issue of free trade. Dani Rodrik acknowledges that the predisposition of most economists is to support free trade, but with many qualifications. Those qualifications do not appear in introductory courses and the qualifications provided will differ depending upon the predispositions of those to whom the questions are asked. Unfortunately, economics cannot be easily separated from politics but introductory textbooks proclaim that economics is a positive science, devoid of politics, and that normative questions that arise from different values, are not part of the science. That may an objective of the discipline but bias may even be built into the kinds of questions that we ask or do not ask. For example, we certainly want to make the market more efficient, but we seldom seek answers to questions regarding the distribution of output, or other questions regarding the purposes of economic systems.

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