Sunday, December 18, 2011

an A for ideology, an F for technique

In this article Greg Mankiw describes the argument behind a New York Times opinion piece written by Yoram Bauman, of "10 Principles of Economics, Translated" fame. The thrust of Bauman's thesis is that economics majors, by drilling ideas about incentives, private property, and self-interest into their heads for their classes, are thereby trained to be more selfish. It is supported, supposedly, by evidence showing how the economics majors were less likely to contribute to two charities presented to them when registering for classes.

Greg Mankiw doubts this implication of Bauman's findings. Mankiw basically takes issue with the following quote from Bauman's article:
You may question whether these groups actually serve the common good, but that’s mostly beside the point. Regardless of the groups’ actual social value, a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute; after all, a single $3 donation is not going to make a noticeable difference in tuition rates.
Mankiw, in criticizing this passage, makes a fair point: the supposedly positive externalities of any public good do need to be carefully examined and analyzed, even for small values of contribution, and someone with a social science background, particularly economics, may be well-equipped to do so. They might be less willing to dole out cash to a random charity, but their education is put to use in other ways that are beneficial to society.

While Mankiw may have a point, we at Anti-Mankiw strongly disagree that Bauman's essential claim that economics is ideological evaporates in the face of Mankiw's criticism. In fact, published studies have been done on surveys of students who have successfully completed an introductory course to economics in which the mainstream view is presented without any critical perspective, and these studies offer an interesting take on how ideology matters in the classroom.

The findings? The majority of students 6-12 months after taking such a course recall most quickly the normative aspects of the course but are relatively less able to solve simple problems related to these ideas (to see how they might work or not work in practice). Ideas like "taxes are bad for efficiency, though not for equity", and "prices not set by the free market lead to welfare losses and are therefore undesirable" are common, but give them a question to solve on calculating consumer surplus, for example, and they cannot deliver. These are consistent with our own experiences in teaching introductory courses offering a mainstream view, and indeed, on a certain level makes sense: most cases, you may just get the main point of an argument and not necessarily the details behind the argument. But nevertheless, it's presented as an argument, and therefore not of course the only perspective!

[See Bartlett, Ferber, and Green's "Political Orientation and the Decision to Major in Economics" in International Review of Economic Education; and Faravelli's "How Context Matters" in Journal of Public Economics for two resources. These ideas were also reflected on based on a correspondent's current dissertation research which we are not allowed to cite openly.]

The lesson learned?  That market-centric views and market-centric efficiency criteria are at the center of any policy evaluation of a student, leaving no room to discuss how efficiency is not a scientific concept. (See this article by Rick Wolff, entitled, "Whose Efficiency?" which does a great job of breaking down the different models. Duncan Kennedy and Frank Michelman also have a nice piece as well entitled "Are Property and Contract Efficient?".) Second, it is highly questionable whether an intro course "enlightens" the student in the way Mankiw believes it does. Admittedly, part of the problem here is with education itself -- how we train our students and so on -- but Mankiw, writer of the currently most successful textbook, is therefore part of the problem, not the solution.

It's a short step from this final point to the idea that a better economics textbook -- which either clears away the ideological content and works more like the seminar room or offers a critical approach that draws on many different worldviews (or both) -- is just on the horizon...


  1. I'm currently an Econ major, but personally have not been effected in that way by the material I've been brainwashed with. I don't believe that being an economics major makes us selfish. I think that it makes us smarter with money, which in turn can lead to other ways in benefiting our society. I've never really donated money, and I don't think it has anything to do with me being an Econ major. I'm a student in debt with barely any money to giveaway.

    Also, Bauman's article states that students that are majoring in Economics had the lowest percentage of donators compared to all other majors. However, there have been other studies stating that Econ majors are required to spend the most money on books. But who knows if that's the case. Just like Bauman's article, who knows? Yes, there are a lot of stereotypes towards Economists. But the research that Bauman did proves nothing to me. Seems very biased and one-sided to me.

    On another note, I do agree with the ideology that comes with Economics. After taking my first intro economics class (microeconomics 1A), I did start seeing things differently. I couldn't exactly solve problems just yet, but it changed my way of thinking.

    --Great article, I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. Hi kamy,

    While you are indeed a student in debt, so are all of your fellow classmates, most likely, so in that sense it IS a good experiment because everyone is roughly equal to start out with -- thus, any variation in donation behavior across majors could indeed be indicative of "brainwashing"

    But I agree with your point and in fact would never go so far as to say students get "brainwashed" -- students are smart and think for themselves, too! -- but I do think that by superficially and uncriticaly attaching certain ideas to certain situations (like the neoclassical conception of efficiency or welfare without giving any idea of alternative principles of justice) then that does indeed impact how students make such associations.

    Bauman's research is admittedly a bit weak. As we note in our criticism, we believe that more direct evidence would come from surveys of undergraduate students -- something that might not be quantifiable in the same way Bauman's research is, but most likely more important for understanding how beliefs materialize once we step outside the classroom.

    Thanks for offering your input! Hope you stick around the blog :)

  3. Unfortunately (as with many critiques of orthodox economics) this identifies something terrible but not unique. For example, most philosophy majors graduate as moral nihilists unable to spot a metaphysical distinction when it is staring them in the face.

    Another paper to add to your list, though: Ferraro and Taylor Do Economists Recognize an Opportunity Cost When They See One? A Dismal Performance from the Dismal Science