A Lesson in Monopoly

In a free market, nothing sparks excellence like competition. Substandard products get weeded out, inefficient firms go bankrupt and better goods get produced. But not everybody likes competition. Bureaucracies often fight to defend substandard products by insulating themselves from competition. At Harvard, the age-old impulse to avoid competition has just taken an ironic twist: members of the Economics Department, that bastion of free-market fundamentalism, voted on April 9 to prevent one of their own from offering an alternative to Ec 10.

Ec 10 is a prime target for competition, and most of us have already heard all the reasons why. But, since the full Economics Department Faculty is going to reconsider the issue today, it’s a good time to restate the case against Ec 10.

First off, Ec 10 is the largest class on campus and regularly gets the lowest CUE Guide ratings of any Social Analysis course in the Core, a sign that students, if given an opportunity, would love to walk out of their half-filled lectures in Sanders Theater and never return. But anybody planning to concentrate in economics, the most popular concentration at Harvard, must take Ec 10. Those interested in Social Studies are frequently herded into the class as well. Even those who are not forced to take Ec 10 by departmental requirements find that the course is the only way to learn any basic economics.

But Harvard students don’t hate the class just because it’s boring. The hundreds of first years in Ec 10 find readings largely limited to the opinions of Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein, who spent his glory days designing “voodoo economics” for President Reagan. Occasionally (perhaps through an oversight) an opposing view will slip into the sparse coursepack, but this is rare.

To cite one example: out of eight articles in the coursepack on Social Security, five are written by Feldstein or present favorable summaries of his position. Two are written by others in support of Feldstein. Of the eight, only one opposes Feldstein’s plan for privatizing social security, and even this article calls for a “balance” between private savings plans and Social Security, not better social insurance. While polls show strong skepticism among policymakers and the public about Social Security privatization, Ec 10 acts as though the debate has already been settled in favor of the privatizers.

And bias is only the beginning. Ec 10 lectures give students no opportunity to ask questions; Ec 10 sections emphasize memorization of politically loaded economic graphs and equations over open discussion of ideas.

But maybe Ec 10’s bias and stifling of discussion doesn’t bother Harvard students. Maybe, unbeknownst to everybody, Harvard students are more conservative than the rest of the country. Maybe Harvard students prefer memorization to discussion.

Fortunately, Harvard students have not remained silent on Ec 10. Whether from dislike for the class or a belief in competition, 708 undergraduates have signed a petition calling for an alternative to Ec 10. By voting against an alternative course, the Economics Department’s Committee on Undergraduate Education has turned its back on the 708 students who signed the petition and every other student who wants a better economics education.

Harvard students deserve a marketplace of ideas, not a one-course monopoly. Competition can only make introductory economics better. The Economics Department Faculty owes it to the student body to support an alternative to Ec 10 when they reconsider the issue today.

—Samuel M. Simon is an editorial comper.