Home > ethics, Plutonomy, The Economics Profession > An open letter to Greg Mankiw

An open letter to Greg Mankiw

The following letter was sent to Greg Mankiw by the organizers of yesterday’s  Economics 10 walkout by students at Harvard

Wednesday November 2, 2011

Dear Professor Mankiw—

Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.

As Harvard undergraduates, we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.

A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.

Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics. Many Harvard students do not have the ability to opt out of Economics 10. This class is required for Economics and Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrators, while Social Studies concentrators must take an introductory economics course—and the only other eligible class, Professor Steven Margolin’s class Critical Perspectives on Economics, is only offered every other year (and not this year).  Many other students simply desire an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education. Furthermore, Economics 10 makes it difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively as it offers only one heavily skewed perspective rather than a solid grounding on which other courses can expand. Students should not be expected to avoid this class—or the whole discipline of economics—as a method of expressing discontent.

Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.

We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously.

Sincerely,

Concerned students of Economics 10

  1. Joe
    November 3, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Well done students, wise before your time, don’t listen to the naysayers!

  2. Mike Meeropol
    November 3, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Students of Greg Mankiw should be aware that not only does he privilege Adam Smith over John Maynard Keynes — but he privileges a FALSE version of Adam Smith over John Maynard Keynes. Smith was both a nationalist and a pro-employment economist —

    In Mankiw’s Principles text (at least the 1998 editon) his mention of Adam Smith’s use of the concept of “the invisible hand” in THE WEALTH OF NATIONS borders on academic malpractice. Not only does Mankiw leave our Smith’s focus on investors preferring domestic investment to foreign investment as a prime example of the invisible hand at work, but he runs together the brief mention of the self interest of the butcher and grocer from BOOK I with the only reference to the “invisible hand” from BOOK IV.

    It would be interesting to see how Mankiw responds to the “real” Adam Smith on “the invisible hand.”

    ANyone interested can check out my detailed article from the PERI website —

    http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/working_papers/working_papers_51-100/WP79.pdf

    The key pages in the article are 5-6 — and check out footnote 12.

    There is a great article by Joseph Persky in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that spells this out excellently.

  3. Mike Meeropol
    November 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    For anyone interested the full cite of the Pesrky article it is “Retrospectives: Adam Smith’s Invisible Hands.” JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES 1989 (number 4), pp. 195-201.

  4. November 3, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    We should also remember that Adam Smith also wrote “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” The invisible hand that today’s very immoral commercial system uses as some sort of lame justification was envisioned by Smith as attached to a moral observer of a given economic activity.

    We should also note that the Harvard economics department is training young African minds that corporate agriculture is more efficient than traditional agriculture when in fact it is only more efficient per hour of wage labor worked and is less efficient per acre of land. Olivier De Schutter, theUnited Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, covers this here http://www.srfood.org/

    Closing the circle of immorality as an observer of the Harvard Economics Department : After the bright young Harvard econ grads return to their countries in Africa, they advise their governments to squeeze the people off the land and make room for modern agriculture, that’s when the Harvard endowment shows up as a cash rich land grabber ready to employ the newly impoverished landless as semi-slave wage rates.

  5. Ken Zimmerman
    November 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    For me the basic question here is this, how does someone who it seems is both a poor teacher and an intentionally biased one rise to the level of teachihg at Harvard, supposedly one of the handful of “best” colleges in the world? And almost as important how does such a “top notch” college allow such a teacher to continue in his job. The concerns here I think extend beyond just one bad teacher and one college, though. Primarily it’s about how decisions are made, who gets to be involved in making them, and how their results are evaulated. The walkout is a start, but there’s a lot more work to do. American pragmatists recognized these concerns more than a century ago. Pragmatism, once a foundation for work and teaching in the US has been pushed aside by so called sciences of economics, government, and religion. and look where that’s gotten us!

    • Alice
      November 4, 2011 at 8:07 am

      Its not JUST Mankiw. How much longer can the teaching of undergraduate economics in so many institutions go on embedding so many damned lies and blatant nonsense?
      The profession is a joke when they insist on pushing the economics of disparity, inequity and inequality (and actually economic destruction).

      The students clearly understand economics better than the professor.

    • Dave Taylor
      November 4, 2011 at 9:53 am

      Spot on, Ken. For me, the basic answer seems to be “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. Which takes me back to banks making money out of nothing, then laundering it in the slime of usury and the shit of [who’s got a suitably distasteful generic name for receiving commissions and bonuses for speculation with other people’s money?] to turn it into filthy lucre.

      I feel sorry for Mankiw to the extent that he’s turning into the fall guy for the folk who hired him, but the root of the problem isn’t even them, it is the assumption [by the majority who still don’t understand negative numbers, never mind complex ones] that money – even in the forms of credit and filthy lucre – always has positive value. Well done Gesell for seeing otherwise. As Keynes seems to have realised in his General Theory, that’s the essence of the answer.

  6. November 3, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    This villainy is analogous to evidence of asbestos-caused cancer being ignored because “most all those victims can’t even spell ‘mesothelioma'”:
    “Condemn venal journalism for severely fooling the people” at
    http://occupywallst.org/forum/condemn-venal-journalism-for-severely-fooling-the-/

  7. Paolo Leon
    November 4, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Adam Smith’s veil of ignorance (nobody knows that, in pursuing self interest, makes for everybody else’s happines, otherwise would ask a compensation) makes Mankiw’s textbook a series of fairy tales. Rayional expectations, ricardian neutrality, representative agents,and the like, are all attempts to shred Smith’ veil. Once you do that you are in the realm of faith not reason.

    • R. Davis
      March 20, 2013 at 9:14 am

      If you knew as much about economics as Dr. Mankiw does, you would know that the “veil of ignorance” is Rawls, not Smith. You are a few centuries off.

  8. November 4, 2011 at 7:18 am

    Did Mankiw react to this letter in some way?

  9. Mike Meeropol
    November 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    He put this on his blog:

    http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/

    He didn’t say much himself — he posted one student’s “defense” of the course.

  10. ezra abrams
    November 7, 2011 at 12:20 am

    am i the only one who thinks it is morally wrong for Prof Mankiw (and Krugman, for that matter) to charge so much for their intro textbooks, considering students have little choice ?
    I understand MIT is putting its course material online, which demonstrates the difference betwen the two institutions

    • Dave Taylor
      November 7, 2011 at 10:09 am

      No; but – probably it isn’t the professors hoicking the prices, it is publishers trying to cover their costs in justifiable expectation of large stocks of “remainders”.

  11. November 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    my full respect to this action! better later than never! one of the most infectious roots of our current economic problems is education of economics, which as it has been rightly put, mainly nurtures this neoliberal mantra without actually critically questionning its implementation, long-term consequences and obvious disadvantages. Such powerful organizations like IMF, World Bank primarily rely on professionals who have gone through the elite anglo-saxon education machinery and act as servants of this one particular eocnomic theory rather than the people and their governments.
    in 2008 September i started my MA degree course in International Political Economy and though it was perfect time to study this subject due to paralel economic crisis, my lecturer did not have easy times at all, because she realized that her usual way of explaining things does not look credible and we could easily challenge her. I wish, professors in Harvard and similar leading instutitions one day get similar confusion by opening eyes and beginning to look at the things outside the box and get rid of their narrowmindness in terms of how economics should be managed.

  12. Paul Grenier
    November 7, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Congratulations to Harvard students for calling out the obvious truth that the neo-classical paradigm doesn’t hold up to reality. If there is a single alternative system or text out there to replace it, I am not aware of it, but there are several new thinkers, and new books, that have begun to chart a new and more adequate course.

    One of these — a text that is admirably modest in its ambitions — is John Medaille’s latest book that attempts to make economic science more scientific precisely by placing it back within the ethical tradition. The book’s name is really the only thing about this book not to like (title: Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More. ISI, 2010).

    This book is full of surprises (a conservative writer who has lots of complementary things to say about both Keynes and labor unions … ), and addresses with a keen intellect many central problems, fundamental questions of economic theory (e.g.: are land, money, and labor really commodities?).

    ISI is a conservative press that increasingly has torn itself free from tired nostrums of the think tank world and is looking for genuinely new, if ethically informed, thinking. Here’s part of their write up: “Toward a Truly Free Market argues that any attempt to divorce economic equilibrium from economic equity will lead to an unbalanced economy—one that falls either to ruin or to ruinous government attempts to redress the balance.”

  13. John Betton
    November 13, 2011 at 2:51 am

    Good for the students to recognize the superficiality (and political bias) of introductory economics textbooks (well not just introductory). The reference to wanting an “unbiased” approach is somewhat complicated. It assumes there is one. In my experience, bias tends to be assumed as a factor in viewpoints with which people do not agree. Having said that, it is clear that introductory econ classes in general fail both to provide a critical context or to encourage more than memorization. Reference is made to Adam Smith by economists who have never read his work

  14. Richard Schmale
    December 6, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    The USA did not practice free trade before 1933. FDR’s secretary of state Cordell Hull brought free trade to the U.S. because he, as a deciple of Woodrow Wilson, believed that free trade would bring world peace by ending trade rivalries that both saw as the principal cause of war. We have free trade today because Hull believed it would bring peace, not because it was good economics. Free trade soon acquired the mantle of progressiveness while “protectionism” became anathema to any “right thinking peson”. That is where it stands today. Free trade is believed as dogma not science because our great grandparents generation accepted the belief that free trade is an alternative to war. Economist John Culbertson discussed the above in “International Trade and the Future of the West” which is in university libraries.

  15. December 6, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    One textbook that could provide introductory economics students with a better understanding of living in reality on this planet, economic or otherwise, is Ecological economics by Daly and Farley. The bottom line is, if we don’t gain a good understanding of the ecological implications of our economic actions, none of these concerns will matter a whit.

  16. December 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    There has been a growing acknowledgement of the inadequacy of what passes for economics in many universities. The earliest that came to my attention was Paul Ormerod’s ‘Deat of Economics’. In his preface he made the statement that:

    ‘Good economists know, from work carried out within their discipline, that the foundations of their subject are virtually non-existent. The challenge of constructing an alternative, scientific approach to the analysis of economic behaviour is one to which increasing attention is being paid. The obstacles facing academic economists are formidable for tenure and professional advancement still depend to a large extent on a willingness to comply with and to work within the tenets of orthodox theory.’

    This I understand from a mature student at the London School of Economics is still the case. For the past 25 years, as the proprietor of a small publishing company, I have tried to build up what I now call our Ethical Economics list. This includes Brian Hodgkinson’s ‘A New Model of the Economy’ which puts forward some challenging arguments.

  17. R. Davis
    March 20, 2013 at 9:12 am

    I teach economics at a University outside the US, and use Mankiw’s text for my intro Micro and Macro classes. I use it because it is well written, and presents a simple and yet not entirely unrealistic of the classical school, modified a bit by other perspectives.

    I do not do this because I am “biased” against Keynes, nor because I agree with Mankiw’s political persuasion. I do it because before intro level students can criticize the classical model they need to understand it. When they come to me at age 18, they generally don’t.

    Once the students have processed the models presented by Mankiw, we move on in later semesters to read primary sources such as Keynes, Hayek, Friedman, JKG, Buchanan, and so on.

    It is called climbing Wittgenstein’s ladder, and apparently Harvard students are too self-important and lazy to bother doing it. That pretty much corresponds to the Harvard alums that I went to grad school with, who were less than intellectually impressive but considered themselves to know everything, as they had been to Harvard (and were pretty much guaranteed never to learn anything ever again). Given my recent discovery that Harvard has “open internet tests” and that, moreover, students apparently cheat on these, my estimation of this formerly great institution has fallen even further.

    To Harvard students who may read this, unless you are a prodigy (which you likely aren’t, or you would be at the LSE) you likely know little about economics. Dr. Mankiw and I have spent literally decades doing nothing but teaching, writing, and thinking about economics, pretty much all the time. Even if you are smarter than him (which I have no way of judging) you don’t know as much about the field as he does. If you do, then why are you wasting your money learning from people who are clearly so intellectually inferior to you?

    • March 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      If you have read for instance Steve Keens Debunking Economics, or my own book True Wealth of Nations, you understand that today’s economic dogmas are not science. It is none-empirical nonsens. I reach this conclusion as an engineer when I look at that todays economic so called science – it has nothing to do with science in the sense that engineers use science to build things. And Steve Keens reach the same conclusion in his book – economics today are none empirical. I pay homage to all that have the guts to say this and live it.

  18. June 26, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    My paper on “Failures of the Invisible Hand” can be downloaded from:

    http://ssrn.com/abstract=2293940

    The introductory section is reproduced below; It argues that the Manikiw macro text starts out by making FOUR claims and ALL of these claims are WRONG.

    INTRODUCTORY SECTION of “Failures of the Invisible Hand”
    One of the central goals of modern economic theory is to establish that free markets work very well, and the government interventions cause ‘distortions’ and loss of efficiency. An extremely important tool in achieving this goal is the idea of the “invisible hand” which is fallaciously attributed to Adam Smith by most modern economists. As a typical illustration, Mankiw and Taylor (2007, pp. 7-9) write that:
    In his 1776 book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, economist Adam Smith made the most famous observation in all of economics: Households and firms interacting in markets act as if they are guided by an “invisible hand” that leads them to desirable market outcomes that, in many cases, maximize the welfare of society as a whole…
    … Why do decentralized market economies work so well? Is it because people can be counted on to treat each other with love and kindness? Not at all. Modern interpretation of Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor says that participants in a market economy are motivated by self-interest, and that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market place guides this self-interest into promoting general economic well-being. Many of the insights of “invisible hand” theory remain at the center of modern economics.

    This same message is conveyed by the vast majority of popular introductory economics textbooks. For clarity, we list and label the claims being made in the cited passage; note that as asserted in the last sentence above, these claims are at the center of modern economics.
    1. Participants in market economies are motivated by self-interest. (SI)
    2. Decentralized market economies work very well, and maximize the welfare of society as a whole. (FM: free markets)
    3. The reason for excellent functioning of decentralized market economies is that all participants are motivated by self-interest. This self-interest works better than love and kindness in terms of promoting social welfare. (GG: greed is good)
    4. The principles listed above were summarized in the concept of the “Invisible Hand” by Adam Smith. (AS)

    Our goal in this paper is to show that all four of these claims are wrong. For convenience, we will refer to these claims by the initials listed above. In Section 2, we show that people are not motivated by self-interest only. In fact, they behave according to the social norms which, as a learned experience, are subject to change using external interventions. In Section 3, we argue that decentralized market economies do not work very well. In Section 4, we show that interventions in free markets can produce very good results. In Section 5, we argue that, contrary to the predictions of the efficacy of invisible hand, greed and competition lead to bad outcomes, whereas generosity and cooperation contribute much more significantly towards promoting the collective wellbeing. In Section 6, we show that attributing the “invisible hand” to Adam Smith is a mistake. The modern day interpretation of Smith’s invisible hand is radically different from what Smith had in mind when he invoked this metaphor to discuss the unintended consequences of certain actions. Finally, in Section 7, we conclude by explaining why the invisible hand theory is still widely believed despite its obvious failures.

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