Sunday, October 20, 2013

a teachable moment on property rights

One of the first ideas economics students learn about long run growth and a stable economy (say, in an introductory micro or macro class) is the necessity for protecting property rights.

Protecting property rights is important, they learn, because you need incentives to invest and grow. If you are always worried about the state coming in and confiscating your property, or taking it without just compensation, then you will never invest resources and develop. Students are provided with tons of examples of corrupt governments (usually in Africa, or ancient parts of the world that were slow to develop) as empirical evidence "in support" of this claim - these countries do not respect property rights, which is (apparently) why they are poor.

Interestingly enough, many developed countries today did not take this path toward prosperity. There is a kind of "kicking away the ladder" story going on here, as there is with trade protection in Ha Joon Chang's work, and it's very teachable. Because in fact, even in liberal democracies such as the U.S., property rights have routinely been compromised in the name of economic growth or efficiency. These are not just "rent seeking" cases by the way, but are fundamental traditions in property and contract law.

Perhaps most strikingly, you can find, hidden deep within the court records, judges who actually argue that looser protection of property rights is what promotes the incentives to develop! Which provides an excellent thought piece for students, to consider the political bias underlying the protected property rights view (which, if anything, was rhetoric that has its roots more in the institutions slave south, which needed to establish the master's "dominion" over his slave, than in the industrial north).

Here is Judge Livingston in a classic U.S. water rights case from 1805 (Palmer v. Mulligan, you can find a discussion of the case and others here:
defendants had the same right opposite their ground. . . must be restrained within reasonable bounds so as not to deprive a man of the enjoyment of his property, merely because of some trifling inconvenience or damage to others . . . Were the law to regard little inconveniences of this nature, he who could first build a dam or mill on any public or navigable river, would acquire an exclusive right, at least for some distance, whether he owned the contiguous banks or not. . . . the public, whose advantage is always to be regarded, would be deprived of the benefit which always attends competition and rivalry.
In the italicized section of this opinion, you can clearly see Livingston arguing that an infringement of property rights could be justified because it breaks up monopoly ownership, thereby promoting competition in land use. This is certainly a "teachable" moment for anyone looking for an accessible, fun, intuitive way of breaking down biased ideas of property rights in mainstream economics teaching.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Use Backward Design to Help Your Students Get the Most Out of Your Courses

Backward design for Introductory Heterodox Economics

Many of us have our favorite books or papers (or even blog articles) which we think best capture the criticisms of mainstream economics. Naturally then, we want our students to follow in our footsteps: read the same critique and hope it sticks with them the same way it did with us. So, we design our courses around those readings and, well, "hope for the best" when it comes to what sinks in. Tests or other assignments "prove" to us how well they did that.

Backward design goes about things a bit differently. It says we should start with what we want to achieve from a class, and only design the syllabus and reading list until the end. What kinds of knowledge or skills would we like our students to acquire? We then figure out what would be sufficient evidence to prove that they had acquired that knowledge or those skills. Finally, we get to work on designing our syllabi in a way that meets those learning and assessment goals.

When looking at things this way, most of us will back up a bit and be more honest with ourselves: before we get to the good stuff on critique, we want our students to come away with some grasp of core economics. This helps them to become economically literate and it also allows them to appreciate our coveted critiques.

Goal: I want my students to have a solid grasp of the principles of demand and supply, of utility and production theory, and of what it means for an economy to be in equilibrium.

Evidence that I have achieved the goal: This could vary according to the instructor. For some, taking a multiple choice test about the definitions and themes from the above-mentioned topics and getting a passing grade is sufficient. For others, writing a complete paragraph or essay explaining a newspaper article using the themes and terms from class is sufficient. For others, solving problems is sufficient.

How I will structure my course to obtain the learning and assessment of the goal: You probably want to address a combination of the points made in the preceding paragraph. In addition to stimulating lectures, you might give a multiple choice exam or two because they urge students to master the material at the middle or end of a class. You might have a few in-class writing assignments as a way to challenge students to articulate and extend what they have learned to the real world. And finally, problems (done as a group or individually) are a great way of grappling with the inner analytical mechanisms of a theory in a way that multiple choice questions or essays simply cannot do.

Now that your students have a solid grasp of economic theory, you can then turn to critique. But how to go about it - just have them read articles and discuss the points in class, or do problems with modified assumption sets? Use the same method above (i.e., backward design), but tailor it to your own needs in the course. If articulation is an important value, you might consider seminars or writing assignments. If a solid grasp of the argument is what you're looking for, a writing assignment or problem set might be more suitable. But try to be as specific as possible and always remember to work backward - don't arrive at the specific readings or quizzes/assessments until you've figured out what exactly it is you want students to take away from your course.

Note: some of this information came out of discussions at the very-informative UMass Pedagogy Workshop in Academic Year 2011-2012. See the following link for more materials.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Healthcare in America

Teaching about healthcare can be complex with all of the institutions and laws and agencies involved. The frustration is amplified by the fact that we know something is clearly wrong, clearly inefficient about the whole system.

How do we wrap our heads around it?

Here is a short video by economists at UMass Amherst as well as others (including an appearance by Jeffrey Sachs) which does a great job at getting at the facts in a clear manner. It's part of the Econ4 project: economics for the people, planet, and future. Check it out, share it (or this blog post) with your networks, and consider using it in your classroom:

The Bottom Line: Healthcare from Softbox on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

new empirical research on unions and upward mobility

At various points during Anti-Mankiw's history we've devoted ourselves to a topic that is often completely ignored by the mainstream: institutions. And even when they are talked about, it's usually in the context of their distorting or enhancing effects on economic efficiency. Schooling, we are told, raises the productive potential of the individual by imparting on him or her the skills or signals conducive to success in the labor market. Unions, we are told, distort labor market equilibrium by artificially raising wages. No matter the story, you can bet that it has something to do, in the end, with economic efficiency. [Read this post which sums up Anti-Mankiw's view of the education debate with the mainstream quite well.]

Those devoted to a social economy approach, on the other hand, realize that mainstream economics' views about efficiency are overly simplified at best and downright biased at most. Boiling efficiency down to a simple, monetized concept of "welfare" in which outcomes are compared to an idealized market equilibrium is inappropriate when other social desiderata are relevant -- such as health, or stable living standards, or a sustainable environment. In the social economy approach, unions are signals of a stable society because collective bargaining can be used to counter employer power.

New state-level evidence from the U.S. presented by our colleague at UMass Eric Hoyt as well as CEPR senior economist John Schmitt shows that there is at least a weak positive relationship between union density and various measures of upward economic mobility (see the link for the details -- it's a short post and would be a great teaching resource in an intro-level course). Such evidence goes a long way in furthering the social economy approach to economics, in which economic mobility is dealt with in a concrete manner. While Mankiw may suggest time and again that education is the means by which economic opportunity is realized, neither the data nor the theory -- from a social-institutional standpoint -- validates his claim (at least, not as education is currently done in the U.S.!).

Hoyt and Schmitt, on the other hand, suggest an alternative institution for enhancing economic mobility and have the data to back it up.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

the weaknesses of analogical reasoning

This article, shared recently by Marginal Revolution, got Anti-Mankiw's blood boiling, for all the wrong reasons. The core issue was the defense of mainstream economics through the use of particular analogies that we believe are fundamentally flawed.

As we explain elsewhere, analogies are often a deceptive way of explaining the core analytical framework of a concept, because an analogy between A and B is only as good as the likeness between A and B. It seems better to start off by explaining the core logical framework from within the language of economics, instead of alluding to its likeness to other sciences. Unfortunately, that is not the approach taken in Mankiw's textbook -- as early as chapter 2 he analogizes the study of "economic science" to physics.

What are the specific offenses that the article makes?

1. Saying that economics is like other sciences, such as medicine. As the article states,
"Galbraith’s and Varoufakis’s worry [that economics has become too mathematical] has been around for 20 years, says Grossman at Princeton. “It comes and goes. It particularly comes when economic times are hard, when it appears that the old way has let us down.” Did the old way let us down? “No,” he answers, “which is very different from saying we know everything. … I don’t think medicine has let us down because there are diseases we don’t know how to cure.”"
Economics is not like medical science. In medicine, all hypotheses go through rigorous empirical testing before they can be accepted by the field, and even at that point, caution is exercised when it comes to making generalizations. Also, in medicine, we don't have to make assumptions about how cells or molecules behave, while with people, making such assumptions is not only very important, but subject to a much wider menu of possible interpretations, often with dramatically different, and political, implications.

2. The idea that there is a "free market" in economics departments, so that graduate students can pick the ones that seem to be offering the most realistic version of economic theory out there. As the article states,
"Harald Uhlig, chair of the economics department at the University of Chicago, another of the No. 1-rated economics graduate schools in the U.S., offers a kind of a model of his own. In an e-mail, he writes: “Above all, I do not believe in central planning. What is true in private markets is true in PhD education as well: It is good to see different places try different approaches, to let the PhD students decide where they want to be educated, and to let the marketplace for future scientists decide what works and what does not. I am sure that if the new PhD program in Athens is successful and produces the top young economics researchers of the next generation, many other PhD programs will take notice.”
Such a comment ignores the very real differences between top graduate programs and lower-ranked schools in terms of prestige -- something that often goes hand-in-hand with support for the status quo and getting top (influential) jobs, and refraining from any radical criticism of the current paradigm (which is what economics needs at this point).

The thing that concerns us most about these analogies is that, for the casual reader who doesn't know much about the field of economics, it is very easy to take these analogies for granted. Without any rigorous knowledge of the field, understanding is made easier by analogy.

But for those who have an advanced understanding of the field, the weakness of the analogical approach is clear. We are, indeed, actively promoting ignorance by taking such an approach, instead of being honest about our flaws and about the structure of graduate education.

Monday, March 26, 2012

politics and methodology: alternative teaching resources

"Pyramid of Capitalist System"
We at Anti-Mankiw are no strangers to the idea that politics shapes economists' theories about how the world works. Unlike Mankiw, who regularly asserts in his textbook an ideal-type of "observation, theory, observation" method of economic science, the fact of the matter is that how we view the world often shapes our evaluation of the facts of that world.

Perhaps in no other place in economic theory is this fact more true, and thus more dangerous, than in the Marxian vs. non-Marxian (or neoclassical) theory of distribution. When Marx argued that the source of all wealth is the laborer and that surplus value, or profits, were taken from the laborer by the capitalist, neoclassical economists replied with a theory of distribution asserting that capital earns its fare share of the output, too.

The neoclassical response in the late 1800s offered a new theory, or new way of looking at the world. This subsequently helped shape how all neoclassical economists thought about the source of profits: instead of seeing them as fundamentally sourced from workers, these economists saw capital and entrepreneurs simply getting their fair share of the pie -- represented by the marginal price of capital multiplied by the marginal physical product of capital, or the value added by capitalists to production. This victory was a major one for capitalists because it essentially legitimated their control/monopoly over the means of production, which is really the main role capitalists play.

No more explanation for all the profit was necessary! And the political consequences were indeed severe. For one, the neoclassical response to Marx came in the 1870s, when labor militancy across Western Europe and America was reacting to a rapidly growing capitalist power in politics and the workplace. And the political victory is felt even up to today: even when compensation starts to be outstripped by worker productivity as it did in the 1970s, neoclassical economists could simply ignore it because in their baseline model, workers get what they put in, and so does capital. The rest was just minor details.

Why do we mention this now? Because Fred Moseley from Mount Holyoke College has written an excellent introduction to the neoclassical theory of distribution as well as some ways to critique it for an introductory- or intermediate-level class. Find it here. We highly recommend checking it out and trying it out in your own classes!

Monday, March 12, 2012

advanced pedagogical techniques: introducing the topic of exploitation

"The Intimately Oppressed": How to talk about exploitation in the classroom
 A few years ago, in a conversation one of us had with a fellow graduate student, the issue came to surface of how to approach certain issues that have become a mainstay of the mainstream curriculum over time. We were specifically discussing the issue of how easy it is to fall into the so-called "markets in everything" trap -- whereby you start thinking about how markets for everything from organs to healthcare could solve most of the problems of social inefficiency. But the issue is much more general than that, and exposing that generality is the topic of this post.

So when one of us was discussing how to approach the "markets in everything" issue, which is really quite widespread among the blogosphere (particularly Marginal Revolution, which has made a type of blog series out of the idea... but Greg Mankiw is also guilty of perpetuating the idea, not surprisingly), our friend made the point that, why not start from the other direction, and work your way back? Instead of beginning with the idea that everything should be marketized, begin from the idea and theory that nothing should be marketized, and then ask what would qualify something to be marketized. That is to say, we should expose students' inherent repugnant feelings about a market for body parts or healthcare from the start, and then work backward from there, adding in markets as a qualification of the general argument that commodification should not exist. (In fact, if you think historically, this is actually the way in which the debate occurred -- we didn't start out with a fully marketized society and we only got there from peeling off various layers of social-institutional control!)

It's simple, and it works remarkably well. Furthermore, such a logic can be applied to other ideas which are not easily raised in the classroom, such as the issue of class or exploitation. By starting with certain ideas of exploitation that are more easily recognizable to students (such as the treatment of women in the workplace vs. men), it becomes easier to identify general principles of exploitation that may be applied to workers.

Talking about how women have traditionally been discriminated against in the workplace is a clear example of exploitation. Or talking about how, when they were first integrated into the industrial labor force in the early 1800s, they were pulled from both directions -- into the home because of preconceived notions of women's place in a private sphere; and out to work because of the need to make enough money to feed their children and support their family; all the while not being allowed to vote -- shows vividly how gender norms shape capitalism and employer behavior more generally. The continued persistence and use of racism after formal political freedom had been established by emancipation is another example of using the tools of race or gender to strike at ideas and issues of class exploitation.

Similar arguments can even be made for immigrants. Here is an example of how one of us has incorporated gender into a story of industrial capitalism. We have found that through doing so, it then becomes easier to talk about exploitation in the workplace more generally, because now students have seen how management policy has affected women workers. It is just a small step (really!) from that point to then talking about workers in general.