Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mark Thoma on the Ec 10 Walk-out

I really liked this:

I was going to stay out of this, partly because I don't find this particular expression of the protest very compelling, but I'll add one thing. A big part of the problem is what we are not supposed to talk about in economics, the politics that surrounds the profession and, in particular, policy prescriptions (and don't let Mankiw kid you, through the things he chooses to link, say on his blog, etc., he plays the political game, and plays it fairly well). The fact that one introductory class at Harvard has this much power to affect the national narrative is part of the problem not the solution. It is yet another reminder of just how concentrated power is in this society, and where it lies. Would a protest at a typical state university have gotten as much publicity? Nope. But when it's the institution that educates the rich and powerful, suddenly we are supposed to take note. And we do.

I started blogging in part because I was fed up with the way in which economic issues were presented at CNN and other mainstream news outlets prior to the Bush reelection. Those with the power to get on the air would make claims that were supposedly based upon economics, but were clearly false or at least highly misleading, and they would do so without an effective challenge from the hosts/anchors or other guests. It clearly had an effect on the national conversation, but it was all based upon using economics as a political rather than an analytical tool. So I don't think the problem is what we teach in economics courses, though we could certainly improve in some dimensions. Most courses are careful to cover market failures, etc., and how those problems can be solved through various types of interventions. The problem is the way economics is used by those with a political agenda. If the powerful had an interest in promoting ideas about market failure and the need for government to fix the problem, we'd hear about these ideas endlessly in the media. But those with power want the ability to use it unconstrained by government or any other force, and it should be no surprise that anti-government, anti-regulation, and anti-tax ideas come to dominate the conversation.
One strange thing about introductory economics: it emphasized the virtues of competitive markets.  Yet if markets are competitive, agents can't earn economic (i.e., abnormally large) profits.  Consider the implications of this as certain members of the political class praise the "job-creators."