Mankiw’s Introductory Econ Class stages a Walk Out

This has to be one of the most intriguing situations that I’ve heard about for some time.  Any one that teaches knows that student evaluations really count for people that aren’t tenured and don’t have some kind of research status that makes them immune to student complaints.  Administrators pay attention to them a lot more than they probably should.  I’ve had raises parsed out based on the 4th decimal place of department averages. I always used to wonder about the one question where freshmen students get to judge whether or not you know your subject area. I mean, how would they be in a place to know that if they’ve never had any exposure to a technical, complex topic before?  There are sometimes very useful things you can learn from students.  I’m wondering what the real lesson should be from a walk out associated with a political movement.

I’ve occasionally had students complain to me about other professors either personally or on my evals.   It puts you in an awkward position.   I’ve never seen it raise to this level in all the years I’ve been teaching in a variety of colleges and universities.  The roots of the walk out were in the Occupy Movement.  The contents of the letter explain the motivation directed at Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw published in the Harvard Political Review.

Greg Mankiw has his own blog as well as having published his own textbooks for introductory economics.  I’ve never used them but I’ve looked at them during textbook searches.  It’s fairly standard treatment of the subject. Mankiw was Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Dubya Bush.  He’s been an adviser to Mitt Romney. He also has a lot of clout if you look at his cites and pubs at IDEAS/RePEc rankings.  The funny thing is that he’s actually considered a “New Keynesian” economist.  Here’s a quote from an article he wrote in the NYT in 2008.  I quote this to show you he’s not really that atypical of a macroeconomist.  He shows up in fairly mainstream, traditional Republican circles.

“If you were going to turn to only one economist to understand the problems facing the economy, there is little doubt that the economist would be John Maynard Keynes. Although Keynes died more than a half-century ago, his diagnosis of recessions and depressions remains the foundation of modern macroeconomics. His insights go a long way toward explaining the challenges we now confront.”

The students  complain that Mankiw has an inherent bias.  There should be no surprise you frequently hear that from students who come in wanting their own biases reinforced.  I personally try to challenge my students from all sides of the political system just to try to get them to think critically rather than on automatic.  I have no personal experience of Mankiw’s classes so I have no idea if their complaints are legitimate or not.

As Harvard undergraduates, we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.

A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.

Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics. Many Harvard students do not have the ability to opt out of Economics 10. This class is required for Economics and Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrators, while Social Studies concentrators must take an introductory economics course—and the only other eligible class, Professor Steven Margolin’s class Critical Perspectives on Economics, is only offered every other year (and not this year).  Many other students simply desire an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education. Furthermore, Economics 10 makes it difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively as it offers only one heavily skewed perspective rather than a solid grounding on which other courses can expand. Students should not be expected to avoid this class—or the whole discipline of economics—as a method of expressing discontent.

Supposedly, about 70 of the 700 students walked out.  I really haven’t read anything about the walk out from other blogging economists. I think it’s because every one pretty much feels a certain amount of empathy for a colleague.   Also, there is such a thing as academic freedom.  I do, however, find it strange that the complaints say that Mankiw spends too much time on Adam Smith as compared to J.M Keynes given his research agenda and his writings.  I’d like to offer up this WSJ Book Review of a Keynes Biography to illustrate why I’m a bit confused.

But mathematics is, fundamentally, the language of logic. Modern research into Keynes’s theories—I have conducted such research myself—tries to put his ideas into mathematical form precisely to figure out whether they logically cohere. It turns out that the task is not easy.

Keynesian theory is based in part on the premise that wages and prices do not adjust to levels that ensure full employment. But if recessions and depressions are as costly as they seem to be, why don’t firms have sufficient incentive to adjust wages and prices quickly, to restore equilibrium? This is a classic question of macroeconomics that, despite much hard work, is yet to be fully resolved.

Which brings us to a third group of macroeconomists: those who fall into neither the pro- nor the anti-Keynes camp. I count myself among the ambivalent. We credit both sides with making legitimate points, yet we watch with incredulity as the combatants take their enthusiasm or detestation too far. Keynes was a creative thinker and keen observer of economic events, but he left us with more hard questions than compelling answers.

So, my guess about the situation and the lack of comments of blogging economists on this is along the lines of students will be students.  Mankiw is clearly no Austrian economist which is one school of thought that every one walked out on years ago but is experiencing a resurgence because of Koch Brothers’ investment.  I think he’s gotten tagged because of the folks he’s advised.  Again, these are guys are old school Republicans and not part of the Tea Party insurgence.  Dubya actually did implement some fairly traditional Keynesian stimulus in his response to the 9/11 macro shock.  The political discourse has gotten so harsh and has been so narrowly covered by the press that it must be harder for younger people not to think that every Republican and their advisers is off the Richter scale of reason.  I guess that’s my way of  saying that calling Mankiw an out of the mainstream economist makes about as much sense as calling Obama a Kenyan-born socialist.  The claims oversimplify Mankiw, Adam Smith, and J.M Keynes. But, we are talking freshmen and not doctoral candidates.  I think this reflects the anger in the current national discourse a lot more than it reflects anything else.  I’m just wondering if any of Mankiw’s peers on either side of the neoKeynesian battle lines will speak up.

In a way, this reminds me of  the article I read about 5 days ago on Thomas Sargent in the NYT.  Sargent was lauded as  a ‘non-Keynesian”  in a WSJ article covering his win of the Nobel prize in economics this year.

In telephone conversations last week, Professor Sargent said he felt insulted by people who call him “non-Keynesian” or “right wing,” terms that, he said, are based on a misunderstanding of his thinking. And he rejected attempts to categorize his views in simple slogans.

He doesn’t wear his political opinions on his sleeve. “They really don’t matter in my research,” he said. But because others have applied labels to him, he decided it was worth setting the record straight. He’s a Democrat, he said, “a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Democrat,” adding, “I think that budget constraints are really central.”

It’s important to consider the “incentive effects” of government policies, he continued. “There are trade-offs in efficiency and equality, and they lead to choices that aren’t easy,” he said.

This sort’ve lends itself to the traditional economist jokes where the punchline always has something to do with “on the one hand, on the other hand”.   I kind’ve liked the opening paragraph on that article and so I’m going to borrow it as I start the close to this blog piece.

EXPRESSING your own views is challenging enough.  Describing someone else’s opinions without talking to them first opens the door to serious trouble

I once did an experiment in a few class rooms just to see if any of them could guess my party affiliation.  I got your basic 50-50 split between those who thought I was a  Republican and Democrat.  I will usually step up and answer a direct question on policy with my opinion if I’m asked for it. Usually, I will play the role of devil’s advocate just to get student’s to question their thought process more.  I did express constant surprise this summer that a huge number of politicians seemed to feel that it was okay to default on US debt. That’s basically because I was teaching a graduate finance course and the basic risk free rate for every model is generally presumed to be one US Treasury rate or another.  I asterisked my explanations for the first time ever with an explanation that this might be the first year ever where we have to find another empirical example for a risk free rate if the debt ceiling extension doesn’t pass.  I did get called out as having a ‘bias’ for this in one eval.  Given the way that many Republicans considered US default a reasonable policy, I suppose I had to have at least one person show up that considered my asterisked explanations to be a bias.  So, let’s just say on some level, I can relate to Greg Mankiw even though if you put the two of us in one room there would undoubtedly be a lot of things we don’t see eye-to-eye on.

So, what do you think?  Just politics?  Just students being students?


Martin Wolf on Fareed Zakaria: Worth a View

FT's Martin Wolf

FT's Martin Wolf

I’m not one to recommend CNN programming these days. Actually, I’m not one to recommend programming on any of the TV stations these days.  However, I  find FT’s Martin Wolf one of the few voices of economic reason in the world. He was interviewed on Fareed Zakaria’s program today.  It’s one of the few CNN programs left with an international twist. They’ve watered down most of the new shows to the point I consider People Magazine a better source of global news.  This program will be repeated this evening at 5 est so you may want to try to watch.  Also, Canadian PM Harper is on the program.  Both the Canadians and the Brit’s have economists for PMs.  It’s amazing to listen to his interview because it’s full of wonky specifics rather than hopey changeyness–that as Martin Wolf says–lacks boldness of vision and action in its actualization.  Listen to Harper.  It’s an amazing contrast to some one who needs a teleprompter with words penned by a 27 year old frat boy to form a complete sentence.

Fareed Zakaria never insults the intelligence of his audience. That is also a reason I enjoy his program.  He wants to stimulate discussions and thought.  He has a juicy wonderful list of books that he recommends.  This week’s selection is a biography of Keynes.  You might know him as the father of economics and government stimulus, but he was also a very interesting character.  He frequently attended white house dinners with

JM Keynes

JM Keynes

his husband of the moment and was known for writing some fairly outrageous social and political commentary.  The book is: John Maynard Keynes, Economist, Philosopher, Statesman” by Robert Skidelski. I’m putting it on my summer reading list.

One of the primary reasons that I listen to Martin Wolf is that he is English so he has no political dogs in the hunt for a return to global prosperity.  His focus is purely on getting out of this mess.  That is why I’m listening to him even more than Paul Krugman.  Krugman may have tenure at Princeton and a Noble prize, but much of his column has to do with maintaining popularity here at home.  After all, he won’t get invited to all those sexy parties if he criticizes the home team too shrilly.   Brit Wolf gives the Obama economic team an English B for a grade. That would translate roughly to a D here in the United States.  He says that it’s not that the talent isn’t there because it is very much there.  Wolf says that there is a time that calls for bold action.  This was a time when bold action could be taken.  He also says what we have gotten is basically carefully parsed politics as usual which is anything but bold.

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An open letter to President Roosevelt

John Maynard Keynes  John Maynard Keynes is the the father of modern macroeconomics and Roosevelt’s New Deal.  His suggestions to President Roosevelt during the depression are still regarded as the map that led us our country out of The Great Depression.  The UK Guardian just did a reprint of parts of it and it made me think.  So, on celebrating our thanksgiving, I thought I’d reprint this letter he wrote to President Roosevelt that first appeared in the NY Times on New Year’s eve in 1933.  I know I’m a wonk, and this is a weird thing to be thankful for, but just think of all the bad things that would be happening right now if Keyne’s hadn’t continued to bug President Roosevelt to try some new and radical things.

Even Milton Friedman, whose later reformulation of the Quantity Theory of Money led to his Nobel Prize said that “We are all Keynesians now.” in recognition of this man.  I’m closing out on yet another semester of teaching undergraduates the lessons of Keynes.  My father who majored in economics used Keyne’s book as his textbook.  This was after his return from the European theatre in a tour of duty on a US bomber as the bombardier.  I remind my students that had I taught them Keyne’s in the 1920s, I most likely would’ve wound up on a ship to Russia and branded a Leninist.  He was THAT radical.  Today, he’s at the root of everything.

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