Home > students, The Economics Profession > Toxic Textbooks: Part III – Newton, Mankiw and Einstein

Toxic Textbooks: Part III – Newton, Mankiw and Einstein

from Edward Fullbrook

 Part I – Mankiw’s Neo-Platonism is anti-science 
 Part II – Mankiw’s use of emotionality and bullying

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 [1999] 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 [2002] 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


  1. Robert Dulin
    November 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Excellent analysis. Can hardly wait for part IV.
    This describes how science is taught when the science has not been done.
    The mainstay economics profession clearly relies on the “time value of science” in the same way as lenders rely on the “time value of money”.

  2. November 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Economics without ethics is like a zombie that moves but has no soul.

  3. Jorge Buzaglo
    November 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    On physics, economics and Walras:

    Léon Walras, as most (neoclassical) economists, suffered of physics envy. He requested the great physicist and mathematician Henri Poincaré’s opinion on his general equilibrium theory.
    Poincaré’s answer shows lucid perception and subtle irony:

    “I would have thought that before any mathematical inquiry there are hypotheses, and for this inquiry to be fruitful, one should (as the application in physics for that matter) analyse these hypotheses. It is when one forgets about this condition that one exceeds the limits. … As for you, you regard men to be infinitely selfish and infinitely shrewd. The first hypothesis may be admissible as a first approximation but the second may require some reservations.”

  4. November 9, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    Hurrah for humane scientists, and one could hardly find one more humane than Einstein.

    ‘”Trying to solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that caused it is not the most effective approach.”‘ – A. Einstein

    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.”
    – Einstein

    Perhaps he was thinking of Walras & Poincare (et al)? Anyway, we humans seem to be plagued by both stupidity & insanity. Don’t you think?

  5. Bruce E. Woych
    November 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    I guess we discovered here what “least input” really means!

  6. November 9, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    This is what Mankiw has to say about Henry George’s land tax, having first described some of the benefits (fairness, efficiency): “Although taxing land may look attractive in theory, it is not as straightforward in practice as it may appear. For a tax on land not to distort economic incentives, it must be a tax on raw land. Yet the value of land often comes from improvements, such as clearing trees, providing sewers and building roads…” Well, what thoroughly lazy thinking. Providing sewers and building roads? That’s capital, Greg, pure and simple. It wears out, has to be maintained/replaced. Clearing trees? When was that done for heavens sake on most agricultural land? So land, we must presume = agricultural land. Let’s forget about Manhattan and London – once it’s built on it’s obviously not land any more. But then since he doesn’t even bother to give a definition of land, let alone provide insight into the special attributes of land, what can one expect? Not surprising, is it, that most economists haven’t a clue about one of the most fundamental factors in the economy.

    I think my old Lipsey was superior – and that’s not saying much.

    • November 12, 2011 at 4:14 pm

      In his new 6th edition, Mankiw has eliminated his previous 2/3 page feature on Henry George and the land tax. It was a bit confused, but at least it was there. A survey of instructors using the Mankiw book showed that this feature was not popular. So we are down to a popularity contest. If a textbook shows how the deadweight loss depends on elasticity, then it should indeed present the example of land as the prime case of completely inelastic supply, showing that deadweight losses are not necessary. It should have been better explained, and integrated into the text, rather than as a boxed feature that most students ignore.

  7. Geoff Davies
    November 10, 2011 at 12:37 am

    I had a quick look at the Amazon on-line pages. As a scientist myself, what Mankiw says about how scientists use observations to check their theories is not bad, he just needs to try doing it himself.

    For example, in 1987 stock prices dropped 30-40% in a day, though there was no change in the real world. The economy must therefore have been out of equilibrium before, or after, or both. Choose any other crash (2007?) and the answer is the same. Or see where economies of scale and market lockin have led a company to take over a market (Microsoft, Intel?). Their growth was exponential and therefore out of equilibrium. etc. etc.

    Modern economies are far from equilibrium, all the time.

    I also find it curious that he states “markets are a good thing most of the time” as a principle/assumption, rather than a conclusion of his neoclassical worldview, with its thoroughly weird assumptions.

    • November 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      In response to ““I also find it curious that he states, ‘markets are a good thing most of the time’ as a principle/assumption, rather than a conclusion of his neoclassical worldview.'”:

      Mankiw’s 10 principles are a summary of basic concepts, rather than an assumption. These constitute an introduction and summary. In the text following, Mankiw seeks to explain these principles, e.g. showing that price controls, taxes, and other interventions can reduce the social surplus. Texts often have propositions in their introduction for which they later provide the justifications.

  8. Jeff Z.
    November 10, 2011 at 4:14 am

    Which then begs the ‘humanities’ side of the question. Markets for what? How did they begin? What are the real implications for ownership of any asset or resource? Do these affect other political and social questions, and do these in turn affect markets? And if I may abuse the language a little, what is the return on investment for a social network, and how would we propose to measure that? (Assuming the idea is coherent, of course! It may not be on closer examination!)

    Do these conditions created stratified societies? Are they justified? On what grounds? Do the economic aspects of societies change over time? Are these random, or are they brought about by considered and reasoned human judgment and action? Can changes be brought about in a fit of passion? What are the ethics that are involved in economic decisions?

    Every other school of economic thought grapples with these questions and others like them. They do not necessarily come to agreement, But they at least ask and probe where Mankiw and many others do not.

    I actually use David Colander, since he does address some of these issues. I may look at Stretton, because the example cited here reflects a conclusion I came to somewhat independently some years back, and then did some reading and found I was not alone in asking these questions.

    Looking forward to part iv.

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