Walking out on Mankiw

Posted: 3 November 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday, some 70 Harvard students walked out of “Ec 10,” the principles of economics class taught by Gregory Mankiw.*

Here’s a link [ht: ck] to the article on the protest from the Harvard Crimson.

At 12:15 p.m. students stood up en masse and walked out of Sanders Theatre, where Ec 10 lectures are held. Some students carried signs, but most left carrying just their backpacks. As the demonstrators marched out of Sanders Theatre, a small crowd booed them in support of Mankiw. Most students remained in their seats

After walking out, the group gathered in the hallway outside of the theater, standing in a circle and speaking out about the event.

“Harvard graduates have been complicit [and] have aided many of the worst injustices of recent years. Today we fight that history,” said Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash ’15, one of the students who organized the walkout. “Harvard students will not do that anymore. We will use our education for good, and not for personal gain at the expense of millions.”

The students who walked out published an open letter explaining their protest.

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. . .

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.

One student penned a defense of Ec 10.

A broader problem that I have with these protesters is that they seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what economics is. One lesson from the first day of Ec 10 that will stick with me for the rest of my life is learning to separate positive questions from normative ones. Most of the economics that we read about in the news involves normative questions (eg. Should Congress raise the marginal tax rate on the highest income bracket?) whereas most of what economists actually study involves positive questions (eg. What would happen if the marginal tax rate on the highest income bracket were raised?). Ec 10 is an introduction to the academic discipline of economics, and the vast majority of the course focuses on teaching students how to answer positive economics questions.

Economics is not philosophy, and the primary goal of Ec 10 is not to teach students how to make the world a fair place. If protesters feel that the course spends too much time discussing how to make the economic pie as big as possible and not enough time discussing how to slice the pair equitably, I would point out that it is Professor Mankiw’s desire to avoid bias that drives this. After all, asking how to make the pie bigger generally entails positive questions; asking how to slice the pie fairly almost exclusively involves normative questions. And when Mankiw does normatively evaluate a policy in his textbook, he usually does a pretty good job of explaining why economists might hold different positions on that issue, and then he often discusses some policy alternatives.

It is exactly the supposed distinction between positive and normative economics—the idea that a line can be drawn between analysis of what the economy is and questions about what the economy can or should be—that the students who walked out on Mankiw, and the Occupy movement generally, is contesting.

* Mankiw himself observed that “about 5 to 10 percent of the class participated in the walk-out.”

  1. Christian says:

    I find it troubling that an “elite” student wouldn’t understand that normative bias is irremovable from positive analysis.

    Besides, if the student who wrote the defense had his eyes open, he’d realize the the last 30 years have been a veritable nirvana for utility calculus and positive analysis; and what we’ve learned from it all is that it hasn’t worked for the vast majority of people.

    I hope your class on Marx has had expanded in enrollment during the Occupy Movement!

  2. […] comments Pedro on Just add it upChristian on Walking out on MankiwThe road to the bottom for the 99 percent in Indiana « occasional links & commentary on […]

  3. […] this month, 70 students walked out of Gregory Mankiw’s principles of economics class. In response to the walkout, the Institute […]

  4. […] Seeing that there’s a conservative bias in introductory economics textbooks (like the students at Harvard) […]

  5. […] what Mankiw presents in the defense of his course against the students who chose to walk out last month. After expressing his nostalgia for the student activism of the 1970s (when students thought […]

  6. […] to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Paul Krugman refused to be associated with the movement, while Greg Mankiw quickly dismissed the Occupy-related walkout on his class. And most of the other mainstream […]

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