Occupy principles of economics

Posted: 4 December 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Teaching the principles of economics is too important to be left in the hands of Greg Mankiw—or, for that matter, any mainstream economist.

It’s too important for two reasons: First, to the extent know something about the mainstream academic economics, they’re learned it in one or two principles of economics courses. Most students will never take another course in economics. And, second, to the extent those courses are taught by mainstream economists, the students are taught the world works more or less the way mainstream economists see it. In other words, the courses present a nonhistorical, singular approach to economic theory and methodology, replete with phrases like “This is what economists say” and “This is how economists think.”

And that’s exactly 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 “beyond their own parochial concerns” and tried “to make society a better place for everyone”) and then insulting the entire Occupy movement (whose “complaints seemed to me to be a grab bag of anti-establishment platitudes without much hard-headed analysis or clear policy prescriptions”), he explains that he’s not doing anything different from what mainstream economists have done in the past or are doing now.

If my profession is slanted toward any particular world view, I am as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the problem.

Yet, like most economists, I don’t view the study of economics as laden with ideology. Most of us agree with Keynes, who said: “The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.”

What Mankiw fails to understand is that’s exactly how ideology functions: from inside, the “correct conclusions” appear to be perfectly reasonable, the result not of ethics or politics but of applying the appropriate “technique of thinking” (often equated with science). It is only when a doctrine is viewed as the outcome of historical processes and juxtaposed to other theories that it can be seen as one among many possible discourses—in this case, discourses about the economy.

As I’ve explained before, I’m all in favor of teaching mainstream economics. The real question is, how do we teach the methods and conclusions of mainstream economics? “The book” is too important to be left in the hands of Mankiw and other mainstream economists.

The teaching of the principles of economics needs to be occupied.

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