Occupy Harvard’s Econ 10

Occupy Harvard?  I’ve  been in Cambridge for two days and just learned about this walkout from Prof. Mankiw’s class.  Greg is a great guy but I wonder how he handled this?  Was he “old school” dishing out punishment for this rebel alliance or did he achieve a “teachable moment”?

UPDATE:   Here are some more details.


Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

23 thoughts on “Occupy Harvard’s Econ 10”

  1. Undergraduates at Harvard who spend approximately 15 hours a week in a classroom deciding that a portion of those hours are the right hours in which to join a protest are, I’m guessing, unlikely to generate much sympathy among Middle Americans who didn;t go to Harvard and for the most part have to actually show up somewhere 40 hours a wekk, give or take.

      1. I think the point is “sd” didn’t read the article. As the protest had nothing to do with generating “sympathy among Middle Americans”.
        Rather it seems like a small subset of the ruling class’s children don’t like being force fed what they perceived as right-wing econ pap.
        And so they agitated, and got booed by the overwhelming majority of ruling class children who don’t mind having Mankiw as their Moses.

        But all that is inside baseball…

        The 10,000 foot view of the event is that OWS (protesting) is seeping deeper into the youth culture.
        If this is a indication of things to come, then if effect, we are on the edge of a another 60s decade.

  2. I did not go to Harvard (too close to home among other reasons) but I did go to a highly selective university — and yes, we typically had anywhere from 12 to 18 hours of instructor contact time schedule per week, but somehow most of us ended up working 60 to 100 hours a week anyways. And most people who are cognizant of college life knows that the better students should and do spend at least 2 to 3 times as much time working outside of the classroom than inside of the room.

  3. “Greg is a great guy…”

    Sometimes when we know someone closely, we lose the perspective. This apparently happened to Matt. Greg Mankiw may be personable and friendly, but he is not a “great guy”. Mankiw is an apologist for the entire right-wing package from trickle-down to deregulation and the economic arguments he makes in the process often make no sense. Only a few years ago, he might have resisted the temptation and might have avoided false rationalizations, but this is not the case any more. The students actually appear to have chosen a good target–of all the Harvard economists, Mankiw is closest to the Republican elite.

    1. Exactly. The Republican party has explicitly rejected the concept of empirical economics, and any supposed economist who works as an apologist for Republican economic fantasies is an economically incoherent and illiterate piece of garbage who, by rejecting empiricism and embracing gibberish, loses the right to call himself an economist. Mankiw is not a great guy at all.

    2. This “great guy” forces his students to buy a $200 textbook that he authored, and from which he pockets the royalties. Used copied of the 2007 edition can be purchased online for under $5, including shipping.

      I mean, I suppose there’s a chance that his gouging in this fashion is intended to teach the students about monopolies, but it’s still pretty scuzzy, especially the part where he personally benefits.

  4. I like the suggestion from the Crooked Timber thread that what the students should really challenge Prof. Mankiw on is his setting of his own textbook for the course. It is priced outrageously at $175 (second-hand, $4: General Motors would rightly be worried if its cars dropped in value like this.) A nice (dare I say, textbook?) illustration of the evils of rent-seeking in a necessarily imperfect market where captured regulators (the Harvard leadership) empower monopolists. That is, real existing capitalism.
    (Comment posted simultaneously to Warren Terra’s, with which I obviously agree.).

  5. Funny, this is the same class I posted about the other day.

    It sounds as though much of this is due to it being a ginormous lecture course. In a smaller class, students would be able to ask their questions and would probably feel more satisfied about the (probable) bias, because at least it would be explicitly addressed. (Everyone is biased, which I hope got mentioned somewhere in that textbook.)

    Yet it is absurd to say that economic theory itself isn’t political. The very idea that you can strip reality of most of its dimensions, extract some type of theory you can test with math, and then label that as “true” is itself political.

    And classic economic theory is a (nearly?) perfect system for explaining why rich people do not have to care about poor people. (In fact, it’s “bad for them.”) It really is genius. And it takes an exceptional teacher to be able to poke holes in it, because a leftist argument is almost always more complex. Maybe Mankiw’s just not there yet, or, maybe it really is just that it’s the micro-econ semester. (I just mean that he should explain the critique, not that he has to share it of course.)

    No reason for him to take this personally, either way.

    1. I was a physics major in my youth. Much of what we were taught in our first year–Newtonian mechanics–was flat-out wrong. (Even in the classical domain, it is considered weak beer.) But nobody pretended differently, and everybody–even the freshmen–knew that there were good pedagogical reasons for it.* Economics doesn’t seem to work this way. Econ 101 is taught as THE TRUTH, and the economics profession seems happy enough for their tyro students to treat it this way. And advanced economics education, with its emphasis on abstract models and lack of practical lab work, isn’t all that much better. A smart and curious high school student who reads the right blogs probably knows more useful stuff than an Economics BA who knows nothing but what the course material.

      *The Feynman lectures, although beautiful and true, were a pedagogical flop, as Feynman himself admitted. And this was with CalTech students!

  6. I’m a student in Ec 10 with Prof. Mankiw, and let me say that the whole thing has been fairly silly. I’m a liberal myself, and I think the course has had a conservative slant only insofar as microeconomics tends to conflict with a few liberal ideas about what the government can and can’t do well and the effectiveness of regulation. The class has taught the material exactly how I learned it in high school from an ardently liberal teacher using a textbook co-written by Alan Blinder. Just weeks ago, Mankiw brought in David Cutler, who proceeded to spend fifty minutes systematically signing the praises of the Affordable Care Act. And his lecture the day of the walk-out focused (by coincidence) on income inequality, and when he was discussing philosophical approaches toward the issue, Mankiw brought up the theories of none other than John Rawls.

    On Wednesday, Mankiw acknowledged the walk-out at the beginning of his lecture, announced that he’d be having office hours that afternoon at which students could discuss any concerns with him, and paused for a few minutes to let the protestors leave at 12:15. He didn’t address the protestor’s claims head-on, but they were at that point too inchoate for him to really have much to respond to. So to answer Matt’s question, Mankiw’s attitude was not at all vindictive, but I think restrained and professional. He recognized some students disputed his teaching of the course, and offered avenues for those students to raise those issues with him in a constructive way.

    Perhaps some bias might arise in the macroeconomics portion of the course this spring, but for the mean time, I think the protestors’ time would be better spent challenging their own assumptions and learning the material. Ec 10 has been thus far a fair, even-handed course. If students would like to address issues like income inequality and move public policy in a more liberal direction, I’d like to join them—I just figure we should learn how it works first.

    1. Great comment, JSB.

      My disagreements with Mankiw on the subject of political economy are varied and deep. I had nothing but hostility toward his commentary in the wake of the Great Recession and his prescriptions while he was on the Council of Economic Advisers under GWB. But it strikes me that he is acting professionally in his class, and that quoting Adam Smith should not be seen as proving a right wing or even conservative bias, especially in an Intro class. Heck, any careful reading of Adam Smith, in either Wealth of Nations or Moral Sentiments, will find much that even a Marxist might like. I recall a great essay by JK Galbraith in the late 1970s in Harpers nailing this point with a variety of quotes from Smith. And heck, if Mankiw is quoting Rawls, that is even…promising…

    2. JSB:
      Why do you think that microeconomics is the master key to figuring out how public policy works?

    3. I have to take issues with a couple of assumptions. First, the self-description of any Harvard student as “liberal” is just silly. I took classes at Harvard as an undergrad (not a Harvard student, per se) and was a grad student at Harvard. My observations, especially in retrospect, are that the “liberal” attitudes of most Harvard undergrads are, at best inchoate (it seems this legalism is really making rounds lately). It’s not just the protestors who have trouble forming views–there is simply not enough experience to go around–neither individual nor collective. It the kind of “naive liberalism” that either withers on the vine or, worse yet, gets flipped on its head when confronted with reality. Most of the Harvard and MIT undergrads whom I knew as self-described Marxist are now Republicans. The undegrads who had declared themselves libertarian then diverged almost perfectly–those who remained intellectually vested in political philosophy became liberal, the rest are now Republican (although some of them had their allegiances tested by the current crop of Tea Party-driven leadership). The majority of my friends who did become liberal over the years were politically incoherent in undergrad years.

      My second point is that it is almost laughable for a student in an econ course–except perhaps one who has had a significant academic experience outside economics but thought about economic issue–to declare any professorial presentation “fair” or free from biases. It is one thing to describe it as “professional”–which is something that appears to be true, in this case–but “fair” is most certainly the wrong word. So is “even-handed”. Stick with “professional” and “uncontroversial”.

      I should disclose my own bias–I consider much of economics to be theoretical (and computational) claptrap. Meteorology has had a better track record over the years. There are some basic observations that are undoubtedly true–and some come from micro. But, overall, economics is the only science that is proud of being able to predict the past–sometimes accurately.

  7. JSB, if you think Mankiw’s presentation is even-handed then Mankiw is winning.

    quoting Mike Konczal:
    Speaking as someone who has taken graduate coursework in “continental philosophy”, and been walked through the big hits of structural anthropology, Hegelian marxism and Freudian feminism, that graduate macroeconomics class was by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I’ve ever seen. By a mile. There was like two weeks where the class just copied equations that said, if you speak math, “unemployment insurance makes people weak and slothful” over and over again. Hijacking poor Richard Bellman, the defining metaphor was the observation that if something is on an optimal path any subsection is also an optimal path, so government just needs to get out of the way as the macroeconomy is optimal absent absurdly defined shocks and our 9.6% unemployment is clearly optimal.

  8. Just to repeat what I’ve said before: it’s not that all economic theory is wrong. It’s just that it tends to vastly oversimplify people, reality, and the economy (maybe in that order). It is about half-right, at most. And meanwhile it is presented as truth, as my good imaginary/online friend Ebenezer notes.

    If Mankiw is introducing sufficient skepticism about what he teaches to his students, then good for him.

    Otherwise, it’s sort of like when I see Cheney on the telly — I don’t understand why anyone still listens to them.

  9. Matthew Kahn:

    “Occupy Harvard? I’ve been in Cambridge for two days and just learned about this walkout from Prof. Mankiw’s class. Greg is a great guy but I wonder how he handled this? Was he “old school” dishing out punishment for this rebel alliance or did he achieve a “teachable moment”?”

    Matthew, you’ve made a provably false statement – first, Mankiw was a willing streetwalker for the Bush II debacle’s economic policies. Second, as has been pointed out, he dishonestly abuses his position at Harvard to charge sky-high rates for just another Econ 101 book, which is then frequently revised so as to keep ripping off students. That is a clear conflict of interest, and violate – well, not the ethical rules of the economics professoriate, which has none, but ethical principles in general.

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