Thursday, December 30, 2010

looking beneath the left-right distinction: the tradition of critiques of economics pedagogy

Greg Mankiw made a quick reference the other day on his blog to a panel at the AEA meetings on economics education. He linked to a paper by Lopus and Paringer that compares the leading textbooks on the market today. Here is a link to Mankiw's post, which has a link to the paper:

Here are some bullet point comments:
  • I certainly agree with Lopus and Paringer's claim that Samuelson's book still sets the framework for economics education, even as other texts have superseded it. In content and approach, Samuelson's successors including McConnell and Mankiw are focused on political balance built on fundamental principles of market mechanisms, limited government intervention, supply and demand, and thinking at the margin, among other key features of a mixed economy.
  • But Lopus and Paringer simply miss the big issues when they claim that the main problems scholars had with Samuelson's book (and thus the later texts as well) were that it was either "too Keynesian [or] not Marxist enough" (pg. 3), depending on one's place in the political spectrum. This is a very narrow summary of the debates surrounding Samuelson's books. Marc Linder's criticism of Samuelson in particular is much more fundamental. Shunning the left-right distinction, Linder showed how Samuelson's approach to teaching economics was also ahistorical because it pretended to teach "core" economics concepts of scarcity and market efficiency as if they were God-given aspects of economics. Linder argued that these concepts are actually the product of the particular socioeconomic system of capitalism. In short, by ignoring key changes in the history of economic thought, Samuelson's book naturally fits itself into market rhetoric and, if I might add, indoctrination -- precisely because it does not even question principles and ideas which are not wholly absolute or scientific.
  • It was interesting to learn that McConnell's book overtook Samuelson's in sales by 1975. I thought it was later than that, but it does make sense. It shouldn't surprise anyone because during the mid-1970s a lot of turmoil in the political economy was brewing which led people to question certain basic Keynesian fundamentals. This was also around the time that Harvard started using a different book for its Ec 10 course (i.e., not Samuelson), causing a lot of uproar which has been documented in the Harvard Crimson. The story here goes as follows: after WWII Samuelson had a visiting position at Harvard, but he was denied a full professorship there, purportedly due to the fact that he was Jewish, so Samuelson ended up going to MIT instead. This caused a lot of negative sentiment between the two schools, with one Crimson article arguing that it would take decades for Harvard to recover from their mistake. Thus, when Harvard switched away from Samuelson, this also caused some discontent, seen as another political move against Samuelson and his brand of economics. I talk about some of these controversies more in depth in a post relating to Anti-Mankiw from a while back; you can find it here:
  • Of course, the paper finds little difference among the leading books, aside from small differences in the level of mathematics, policy orientation, and range of topics. While some would qualify an important difference in the top books in terms of their hegemony in the field, to some this is not an important distinction. I for one would certainly not argue that Mankiw's Principles is more hegemonic than any of the others, since economics education itself is partly a political project. But it would have been nice to hear more about different methodologies, in particular when dealing with economics education!
  • Paper notes that Mankiw's intro does not address the short run as fully as other texts, and there is no discussion of the Keynesian aggregate expenditures model.
Overall, I was not thrilled with the paper, but it is a useful introductory discussion to different economics textbooks. We still have very far to go...

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