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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Indoctrinated by Econ 101

My fundamental understanding of the world has been warped by a now challenged approach. I'm not alone.

June 13, 2019
 
 

At the time of my taking, Fall 1988, Econ 101 at the University of Illinois was held in Foellinger Auditorium, 1000+ students in the lecture with a raft of smaller discussion sections staffed by grad students.[1]At the start of the lecture one of the grad students would emerge from the wings with what I thought of as “the great scroll,” in reality, a seemingly endless reel of transparencies with the relevant graphs and charts to accompany the entire semester of lectures. When a class period ended, the stopping point would be marked, ready to return to the tale the next time out.

Once I learned that you could buy photocopies of the scroll at the campus copy shop and that the book (possibly authored by the professor himself?) was the basis for the lectures, I stopped attending. Despite an early-semester screw-up[2], I got a B, which means I must’ve been doing A work for good chunks of the semester. 

Like the millions of other Americans who have taken Econ 101, I remember few of the specifics of macroeconomic theory I was supposed to learn in the class. Supply/demand, competition, market, blah blah blah. I engaged in the age-old tactics of passing a required gen ed class by cramming enough stuff into the temporary storage bin just long enough to take the exam, after which that briefly held knowledge leached from my brain, leaving only the thinnest residue behind. 

In the end, the chief byproduct of my general education exposure was a kind of indoctrination into the centrality of markets to understanding human behavior and the apparent importance of economics professors.

I’m not alone. Introductory economics could be one of the most widely received credits in all of higher education. And unlike other common courses (like say, first-year writing), Econ 101 is extremely similar institution to institution. Supply and demand is framed as a law in the same fashion as gravity. When supply and demand does not seem to work according to the “law” (e.g., health care) it is the not the law that is faulty, but the market itself, with much public policy effort going toward trying to bring the market in compliance with the law, often to negative effect. 

That supply and demand might not be a law doesn’t seem to occur. Higher education seems to be bumping up against these tensions as well.

For many years, Ec 10 (Harvard’s version of Econ 101) has been taught by N. Gregory Mankiw, conservative economist, former Chair of the Counsel of Economic Advisers (under George W. Bush), and celebrated figure of “New Keynsian economics.”

Because as goes Harvard, so goes everyone else, Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook has earned an estimated $42 million in royalties.[3]Econ 101 is a literal staple, even if it may not be precisely required. While it has slipped a little in the rankings, Ec 10 remains the third most popular course at Harvard. Mankiw himself sees Ec 10 as a fundamentally important course for and educated populace: ““So many issues that you read about in the news require an understanding of economics to even begin to understand what the right policy is,” Mankiw told the Harvard Crimsonin 2018.[4]

I do not fault Mankiw for this attitude, I expect no less. Any professor should feel similarly about their discipline. I could say (and have said) the same for first-year writing.

Stop laughing. 

But the theory seems very different from the practice. Despite all this taking of introductory economics courses, we cannot say with any confidence that most Americans, even the college educated ones, possess a high degree of economic literacy. Those people apparently include the President of the United States who would for sure biff the question on tariffs on his Econ 101 exam. 

There’s also the fact that Mankiw’s text largely adheres to a mainstream conservative orthodoxy, an orthodoxy increasingly in dispute, including at Harvard which provided an alternative version of Ec 10 taught by Stephen Marglin, an economist who is explicitly critical of the effects of using economic theory as an organizing principle for society because of its corrosive effects on “community.” He identifies mainstream economic theory as a kind of “ideology” and critiques it as such. 

The most recent recession triggered some soul searching among the world’s economics teachers, resulting in a crowdsourced open curriculum which calls to question what were previously viewed fundamental principles such as Mankiw’s approach to markets as being perfectly rational. 

Raj Chetty of Harvard wants to fundamentally change how Harvard’s students experience their introduction to economics by giving them access without pre-requisites to his “empirical economics” approach which looks at large sets of data to understand phenomena like poverty and economic opportunity. 

As reported by Dylan Matthews at Vox, Chetty wants to move beyond detached theory and ideology to a place where economics can be viewed as an empirical science, akin to medicine.  In Matthews’ words, Chetty wants to “give students a sense of the kind of economics that cures: that cures inequality, that identifies and fixes bad schools.”

Chetty wants economics to move towards an explicitly (if not exclusively) empirical approach modeled on the kind of research he does mining large data sets for correlations and insights, as with his work on economic mobility and college degrees. 

What Matthews describes as Chetty’s class sounds deeply interesting and challenging and I don’t see the harm of offering different perspectives on economics to students without pre-requisites, rather than funneling them into Econ 101.

Matthews sees Chetty’s project through an explicit social justice lens:

“It could change broader society as well. Economics 101 courses are often the only exposure to economic thinking many college students receive — and especially at a place like Harvard, those students grow up to run major cultural, political, and financial institutions. If their introduction to economics eschews the dry theory of supply and demand and instead emphasizes the importance of economic and racial inequality, that could have lasting ripples across academia, government, and business.”

I’m not so certain this is much of a shift, however, and I see as many pitfalls

I worry. I worry because I fear we’re replacing one orthodoxy for another, economic scientism for economic theory. 

I worry because the chief effect of the primacy of macroeconomic theory in undergraduate university curriculum has not been to increase the economic literacy and critical thinking abilities of the public at large. This seems indisputable.[5]Instead, it has served as a kind of inculcation (and I don’t use that word lightly) into an orthodoxy that seems to close off some of the other ways of knowing and understanding the world.

I think it’s valuable for students to be exposed to economic thinking, but I’m also wondering what would happen if students were equally as exposed to the kind of thinking done by sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, and science and technology studies. 

The centrality of this economics as the lens through which we examine policy, particularly in elite spaces, has produced the worst of all worlds, where there is a blind faith in half-understood macroeconomic theory that leads to damaging policies. For example, consider the theory that “tax cuts pay for themselves” an extrapolation, and many would argue, a distortion of the famous Laffer Curve, that nonetheless has taken root as a kind of gospel even as many economists challenge its utility.

In fact, despite being sold as such, the Trump tax cut is not paying for itself, as recently admitted by one of the law’s architects, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas. The deficit is up 40% year-to-year. In fact, many many economists were challenging the “tax cuts will pay for themselves” shibboleth, but that message didn’t seem to get through. 

What if instead of Econ 101, we’d all taken the media literacy in politics course which would’ve allowed more people to more forcefully challenge the narrative that drove that debate? 

What if we’ve allowed generations of students to be indoctrinated into a belief system in ways that – as even many economics professors now believe – were fundamentally flawed?

I feel like we could probably do better, and not just by amending how introduction to economics is taught.

 

 

 

[1]I do remember my TA, Santiago Urbiztondo, because it was the most euphonious name I’d ever heard, which caused it to stick permanently in my brain. 

[2]Recounted in an earlier blog post.

[3]It’s now available in hard copy for $176.50, bundled with 6 months of Cengage’s MindTap Economics. 

[4]Mankiw will give over the course to others starting this fall.

[5]We have elected representatives who either do not understand how marginal tax rates work or use the fact that they know their constituents don’t understand how marginal tax rates to consistently distort what are very important debates about the direction of the country.

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