Toxic Textbooks: Part II – Mankiw’s use of emotionality and bullying
from Edward Fullbrook
Yesterday I posted Part I – Mankiw’s Neo-Platonism is anti-science
Part II – Mankiw’s use of emotionality and bullying
A major device which Mankiw and other textbook writers use in persuading the student to accept on faith their principles is to subtly yet forcibly bring emotionality into their presentation. Mainstream or neoclassical economics, especially in the last fifty years, has made a point of raising its flag over snow-white abstract nouns such as “rationality”, “choice”, “freedom”, “equity” and “efficiency”, whose meanings change with the wind and are bottom-heavy with emotion and so float like icebergs through public discussion. Textbook writers like Mankiw use these words of the general culture — and it would be naive to think that they do so accidentally — to emotionalise their presentations and to bully their mostly teenage readers. For example, consider how Mankiw when presenting his putative four principles of how people make decisions introduces “efficiency”, “equity” and “rationality”. Set off in a wide empty margin and opposite where the text says that society faces a trade-off “between efficiency and equity“ one finds:
the property of society getting the most it can from scarce resources
the property of distributing economic prosperity fairly among the members of society
At best two students in a hundred will notice that these “definitions” are gems of question begging: “the most” of what and “fairly” meaning what? Nothing of substance has been broached. What is happening is that the student is being taught to use these words as placeholders, so that gradually and almost imperceptibly they can be filled with neoclassical meaning as the student progresses through the text, lectures, quizzes and exams of the course. All this will be done without a single mention, let alone discussion, of ethical lenses other than Utilitarianism through which one might view economic reality. The students will not even be told that they are being introduced into an ethical system of thought. That could derail the indoctrination process, because students, even nineteen-year-olds, have assorted views on what is fair and have different conceptions of what it means for a society to get the most out of its resources, and some would not knowingly give up their views without a fight.
Mankiw deploys a different tactic, bullying, with his introduction of “rational”:
PRINCIPLE #3: Rational People Think at the Margin [p. 6]
Mankiw explains that by thinking at the margin he means “by comparing marginal costs and marginal benefits”. Why is this bullying? The student, as the author must know, will not read that as meaning “We are going to define ‘rational people’ as those people who think at the margin.” The student will read it not as a definition but as a statement of fact. Most likely the student will not even know that rationality is a normative concept. Nor is the student apt to have any general views to offer in opposition. But what students will have, especially the nineteen-year-olds, is a compelling desire to be regarded both by themselves and by others, most especially by their teacher, as “rational”, whatever the word means. I don’t mind telling anyone that I don’t think at the margin, but the student, and rightly so, will fear the consequences of putting him or herself forward as “irrational”.
Even if “rationality” is taken in the narrow sense of referring to the adjustment of means to ends, it does not begin to escape its status as a normative concept because different people, depending on the forms of ethics to which they subscribe, will have different notions about what one’s ends are or should be. Unfortunately, among economists the obvious needs to be emphasized: not everyone is a Utilitarian. Not everyone believes that the maximization of individual “utility”, whatever that might be, is or should be the goal of human and hence economic life. “Economists have no right to select one ethics as the ‘correct one’ for purposes of economic analysis.” [Söderbaum, 2004, p. 162] But they do, and in doing so go about as far away from the scientific as it is possible to go.
Tomorrow: Part III – Newton, Mankiw and Einstein