Toxic Textbooks: Part III – Newton, Mankiw and Einstein
from Edward Fullbrook
Part III – Newton, Mankiw and Einstein
If economics textbook authors placed education ahead of indoctrination, the epistemological role of their theory ahead of its ideological one, how might they proceed? Hugh Stretton’s Economics: A New Introduction  shows how it can be done. For example, look at how he introduces “efficiency”.
If you measure efficiency by more than one criterion, you have to decide how much weight to give to each of the criteria. The facts can’t do that for you. It takes a value judgment, and that value judgment will be built into your measure of efficiency.
Earlier, you read this: ‘Common sense says it is efficient to get a given output from the least input.’ But what does ‘least input’ mean? Does it mean least raw materials? Least work? Least expenditure? You have to decide. [p. 48]
A little further on, after addressing non-dogmatically the vexed questions “Efficient at what?” and “Efficient for whom?”, Stretton tells the student:
Most tests of efficiency require some value judgments. They can be made into objective tests by precise specifications: output of what per input of what. But that merely shifts the conflicts of interest and the necessary value judgments from the conduct of the test to the choice and design of the test.
This principle applies to judgments of many other things besides efficiency. [p.49]
These passages characterize the approach throughout Stretton’s book and which could and should be the approach of every economics textbook: no attempt to mislead, intimidate or bamboozle the student, no dishonesty by omitting known crucial facts, no misusing the educator’s position of trust as an opportunity to indoctrinate, no reluctance to encourage the student to observe from more than one perspective economic issues pivotal to democracies, in short, no inhibitions about trying to educate in the deepest possible sense.
Mankiw continues to present his “TEN PRINCIPLES OF ECONOMICS” in the style of a sales pitch. In the space of a page and a half he invokes “the invisible hand“ eleven times and speaks of its “magic”, [p. 9-10] Then having presumably sold without offering evidence his “Ten Principles” to the student, Mankiw proceeds to paint “THE ECONOMIST AS SCIENTIST”. He is quite right in assuming that the student will not notice his previous chapter’s display of Neo-Platonism nor know that it is anti-science. Mankiw sets about building in the student’s mind an association between economists like himself and real scientists. For this he is only willing to associate himself with the most prestigious of scientists: physicists, biologists, and astronomers. He hopes to acquire some of their persona by in the space of a few pages repeating over and over a few key words: “physics” four times, “physicist(s)” seven, “biology” five and “biologist” twice”. He especially favours combinations like “physics, biology, and economics”. But even this is not elite enough for Mankiw’s tastes. In the first three paragraphs of this section he mentions Newton and Einstein each four times.
Of course this affectation has a long history in the discipline. It goes back much further than Robbins, and all the way to Walras and Jevons. But perhaps its most humorous example is due to the inventor of the textbook prototype of which Mankiw is now grandmaster. The science historian Yves Gingras  relates the notorious incident at the award ceremonies for the 1970 Bank of Sweden Prize as follows:
Paul Samuelson (1970 winner) wrote about his ‘Nobel coronation’ – not his ‘Bank of Sweden Coronation’ – and filled his talk with references to Einstein (4 times) Bohr (2 times) and eight other winners of the (real) physics Nobel prize (not to mention, of course, Newton) plus a few other names as if he were part of this family.
Tomorrow: Part IV – Eleven ways to think like a post-crash economist