14 December 2011

Robin Wells on Mankiw and the Future of Economics Education

We Are Greg Mankiw… or Not?
On Nov. 2nd, a group of students in Harvard University Ec10, the introductory economics class taught by Greg Mankiw, staged a walk-out. In an open letter, the students lambasted Greg’s course and his textbook for “espous[ing] a specific – and limited – view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today…..There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.” 
I am sure that many of us who have taught introductory economics or who have written an intro economics textbook (a much smaller subset, and I fall into both) felt a pang of sympathy for Greg when we heard about the walk-out.  If you have ever faced a large lecture hall of restive intro econ students, or coped with a voluble student with an ax to grind, you can feel some solidarity: we are Greg Mankiw too. 
But just how far should that sympathy extend?  Is Mankiw simply the target of fuzzy-minded youth who are more intent on making a statement than engaging in reasoned inquiry? Or, is Mankiw – and much of the profession, for that matter – getting a needed reality check about the need to re-orient the way we teach economics? 
First, let me say what this essay is not.  It is not an attempt to promote my textbook over Mankiw’s nor an exercise in partisan jousting.  I don’t find a walk-out a useful way to communicate displeasure with an instructor – better to invite him or her to a friendly debate with opposing views. This essay is not a critique of Mankiw’s teaching approach: I was not there to witness it, and every instructor will differ in political preferences and emphasis.  And neither will this essay advocate a root-and-branch re-think of how to teach introductory economics for both pedagogical and practical reasons.  I consider standard microeconomics to be an invaluable introduction to how to reason about the allocation of scarce resources.  Moreover, most intro econ instructors are stretched far too thin to contemplate a wholesale revision of their courses.   
But what I will say is this: something is shifting out there, and we ignore it at our peril. It would be very easy to dismiss the student walk-out as an exercise in intellectual laziness and grandstanding.  (After all, as many have pointed out, Keynesian models can’t be taught until second semester of Harvard Ec10.)  But perceptive instructors know that sometimes a stupid question is more than a stupid question.  And a really perceptive instructor will take a seemingly stupid question and turn it into the insightful question that the student should have asked. 
Right now the general public views the economics profession with a large measure of distrust and in some cases outright contempt. Students are entering the worst job market in well over a generation, without much prospect of improvement.  Many of them have seen their parents’ lives turned upside down by financial troubles.  They face being members of the first generation in American history with a lower standard of living than their parents.  Income inequality has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age.  There are over 4 million long-term unemployed.
In this environment, instructors who lecture on the superiority of free markets without acknowledging the dysfunction in the wider economy are at risk of appearing out of touch and exacerbating antipathy towards economics.
But how does an instructor do this in an introductory economics?  I think it’s largely a matter of shifting our perspective to let go of the certainties that were part of our economic training and admit to the painful economic uncertainties that many Americans now inhabit.  Here are four ways to help bring that shift to the classroom:
Provide Context.   Compared to past years, instructors need to acknowledge the limits of free markets earlier in their courses. Students should understand the difference between the conceptual importance of free markets and their real world limitations. Explain that much of the current economic distress arises from markets that don’t behave competitively — the labor and financial markets.
Build Trust.  Trust is built when the instructor compensates for the one-sided nature of the relationship by treating students’ viewpoints with respect.  And this is where the art of the perceptive instructor is most likely to be needed.  For example, to the microeconomics student who protests that Keynes and Adam Smith should be given equal time, respond that the issue boils down to why some economists believe that the labor market doesn’t always clear while others believe that its does.  Then take a few minutes to discuss each side of the debate.   Yet, also make clear that valuable class time won’t be wasted on debating viewpoints that are contradicted by the data.
Address Distributional Issues.  The dramatic rise in U.S. income inequality compels us as instructors to address it.  While international trade and educational differences have clearly contributed to some of the rise, it’s clear that they are only partial explanations: they can’t explain the explosion of income gain at the top 1% of the income distribution, and particularly at the top 0.1%.  We shouldn’t extol the benefits of markets while ignoring today’s highly skewed distribution of the benefits.  While there is no single definitive explanation, there are many factors that are feasible topics in class: moral hazard and the setting of CEO compensation, the decline of countervailing forces such as unions and higher marginal tax rates at the top end, deregulation, asset bubbles and the financialization of the U.S. economy.  And then discuss: to what extent is the level of income inequality a legitimate policy target?
Finally, Adopt Some Humility.  It’s true that those of us who weren’t in the business of teaching Gaussian pricing formulas for CDO’s or touting the benefits of homeownership via sub-prime mortgages aren’t directly responsible for the economic mess we’re in.  But in the eyes of many students we are culpable to the extent that we dismiss the need for some re-think of the deference accorded to free markets in how we teach economics as applied to the real world.  Again, I want to emphasize that we make the distinction between communicating the importance of free markets as an intellectual building block and the frequent mis-use of free market concepts when it comes to making real world policy choices.  Lastly, in a world of liquidity-trap macroeconomics, soaring income inequality and an exploding Eurozone, we are going to have to admit that there are areas in which the profession just doesn’t know what the right answer is.  
And remember, there is such a thing as a first-mover advantage.  So schedule a teach-in before your classroom is occupied.
via INET blog

One of the central issues here is that many economics departments are the unabashed representatives of business interests. The austerity in academia advocated by, among others, the Wall Street Journal has allowed powerful captains of industry to step in and provide much needed research funding. That largess comes with a quid pro quo, of course. Thus, economics departments begin to offer courses focused on "economic freedom," "free exchange," "morality of markets," "spontaneous order," and other such Orwellian shorthand for "you're on your own."

For those with a genuine interest in expanding students' understanding of markets, their interactions, and their failures, Dr Wells offers a sober and sane prescription. Unfortunately, at the institutions most in need of her advice, this essay is likely to be regarded as collectivist noise.

09 December 2011

Latest Class Warrior

Step right up, Alan Reynolds!

According to Alan Reynolds in the WSJ, those drawing attention to heartbreaking income-inequality statistics should be in favor of recessions. Why might this be? Take it away, Mr Reynolds:
But here's a question: Why did the report stop at 2007? The CBO didn't say, although its report briefly acknowledged—in a footnote—that "high income taxpayers had especially large declines in adjusted gross income between 2007 and 2009."
No kidding. Once these two years are brought into the picture, the share of after-tax income of the top 1% by my estimate fell to 11.3% in 2009 from the 17.3% that the CBO reported for 2007.
The larger truth is that recessions always destroy wealth and small business incomes at the top. Perhaps those who obsess over income shares should welcome stock market crashes and deep recessions because such calamities invariably reduce "inequality." [emphasis added]
So the lesson is that rational poor people would rather go hungry, and rational middle-income earners would rather join the rational poor, so long as they can shaft the saintly Job Creators™. Just to make sure the lucky-duckies know who is really hurting right now, Mr Reynolds tells readers that, "The latest cyclical destruction of top incomes has been unusually deep and persistent..." Rumors indicating that hordes of hungry millionaires are emerging angrily from gated hilltop communities in order to establish posh gated shantytowns cannot be confirmed at this time.

In all seriousness, the households we're talking about here earn north of $150,000/year. While it is true that reductions in income and wealth are relative, and a 30% reduction in income or wealth for a millionaire is far larger in absolute terms than a 30% reduction for a household earning less than $30,000, only one of those households is likely to go hungry in that situation, however. Not to mention the reduction in consumption by poorer households has a measurably significant impact on the economy, while the corresponding reduction in saving by wealthy households has very little relative impact in a downturn.

There was once a time in this country when the well-off observed a duty to contribute a fair share to the common good, and would be ashamed to be caught in open defiance of their responsibility. It should be no surprise to learn that Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, an organization of ill repute committed to the notion that there is no common good, and the goal of making that so.