Home > students, The Economics Profession > Toxic Textbooks: Part II – Mankiw’s use of emotionality and bullying

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:

efficiency
the property of society getting the most it can from scarce resources

equity
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 UtilitarianNot 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 IIINewton, Mankiw and Einstein

  1. November 8, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Also, Mankiw’s and Mankiw-like textbooks conveniently forget the history of microeconomics. I try to point out some issues which throw light on the ‘political’ nature of microeconomics here: http://www.alexmthomas.com/2011/11/05/the-politics-of-microeconomics/

  2. November 8, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I did a search in Google Books for Mankiw´s “Principles of Economics”. And then I did a search inside the book. All the results include the hits found in the index of the book also. “Capitalism”? Not in the book. “Marx”? Not in the book. “Keynes”? 10 hits. Adam Smith: 16 hits. Milton Friedman: 12 hits. Socialism: not in the book. Communism: 4 hits, always about its collapse and failure.

    Now, how can you write a book that should work as an introduction to Economics without including AT ALL the word “capitalism” in it? That shows skill.

    • November 9, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      What do we call people who are oblivious to reality? I cannot think of any good names.

  3. November 9, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Although all your comments are valid if Economics is a Science, I think that assumption should be challenged. In fact, if it is a creative endeavor of monetary and fiscal architects than Professor Mankiw has every right to apply rationalism and utilitarian principles to his creation. If you want to read more about of my argument against Economics as a Science go to my Blog (randmcgreal.blogspot.com/) I discuss this topic in a blog I posted today titled: Is Economics a Science?

    • Dave Taylor
      November 10, 2011 at 8:15 am

      Economics has been around at least a couple of thousand years longer than your monetary and fiscal architects, whose misrepresentations have not created it but reduced it to their own image and likeness. For sure it isn’t a proper science, but it ought to be – and not a physical science in which what is, is, but a science of communication in which messages directing or derived from our actions can be distorted: whose key achievements have been the understanding of message transmission, Shannon’s error correcting logic and the interpretation of Wiener’s cybernetics (the “steersman” model of control) in terms of information feedback circuits which may (or may not) supply their messages in time.

    • Dave Taylor
      November 10, 2011 at 10:59 am

      PS. What shows of Rand’s blog is not an argument against science but one based on a regurguitation of fundamentally flawed Tea Party logic. “Is there Any Money Left?” accepts that government employees have been paid, then having added up all government’s other expenses concludes there is no money left for their work – now largely reduced to doinng what they have already been paid to do: paying rent, distributing entitlements and supervising/coordinating work already contracted out. Its “N Theory” sounds good, but given its premise that money is profit, paying rent, wages, distribution costs and sub-contractors is just as unprofitable in private enterprises as it is in government. In reality the profit most of these create is real – giving people a livelihood and social function – whereas profiteering by exaction of monetary economic rent is not.

      What is a valuable insight here is that people – Suppliers and Demanders – provide a more adequate basis for economics than Supply and Demand. However, thw nARRATIVE remains focussed on trade in goods, which is but one path in a monetary network involving people in logically different types of role: not just Suppliers and Demanders but Traders, Designers, Carers (i.e. maintainers of natural and social resources, including government), Investors and the black hole of banking wherein real investors are short-changed by rent-extracting Bankers, Speculators and Insurers.

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