Economics or Ideology?

Is the study of economics a science – like physics? A social enquiry – like anthropology? An ideology, or better yet, a variety of ideologies, be they Neoclassical, Keynesian, Marxist or any number of more marginal varieties (Regulationists, Behaviouralists and so on)?

These are questions that anyone who wishes to see an economic system evolve that is more sustainable wrestles with.

A new front in the battle, inspired perhaps by the Occupy movement and certainly reminiscent of it, has popped up in an unlikely place: Harvard University.


Top down view of go game pieces on a board

A group of students staged a highly successful (in terms of garnering media attention) protest by walking out of their introductory Economics course, taught by a former Bush adviser who is synonymous with ‘mainstream’ economics – he literally wrote the textbook – Greg Mankiw. It is their letter explaining their actions that is most fascinating.

They accuse Mankiw of teaching “a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.” Ouch.

They haven’t been without their critics, including from their peers, and in a rather cool response from the Professor himself.

The focus of the discussion has been the topic of that day’s lecture and of the Occupy Wall Street movement, inequality in the United States. But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the walkout for Mankiw and other ‘mainstream’ economists like him was the protestors’ assertion that:

A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics… Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system.

You can follow Mankiw’s thoughts and responses on his blog or find out more about the story on the related article in the FT (subscription required).