Tune In, Walk Out

“Money for jobs and education, not for banks and corporations!” chanted students from colleges around the Boston area this past Wednesday in a citywide walkout and protest affiliated with Occupy Boston.  In recent years, state and national governments have cut funding for public higher education.  As a result, schools have increased tuition and fees and decreased financial aid, making college education inaccessible to many low-income students.  These rising prices have contributed to mounting American student debt, which now exceeds a trillion dollars and is larger than total US credit card debt.  These impediments to education are part of a broken economic system in which the wealthiest one percent profit off the labor of the 99 percent.

This is the context in which we helped organize the student walkout from Professor Mankiw’s Economics 10. Those of us who walked out stand in solidarity with students (and those who would like to be students) nationwide who cannot access the ladders of opportunity that supposedly permeate the American meritocracy.  The walkout should be seen in the context of Occupy Boston and the Occupy movements nationwide, which seek to curb the trends of rising income inequality and concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few over the past thirty years.  We believe that Professor N. Gregory Mankiw, a former economic advisor to President Bush, played a key role in creating the policies which have exacerbated economic inequality and led to financial instability and collapse.   We argue that it is unfair that he teaches this foundational course, which greatly impacts the attitudes of Harvard students, every year.

Unfortunately, debate around the normative parts of economics is severely deficient in Economics 10.  This lack of debate is apparent in the way in which we are taught about key economic and policy principles.  For instance, Professor Mankiw argues in his textbook, Principles of Economics, that equity and efficiency in the economy are “two goals [which] often conflict.” Our professor believes that progressive taxation sacrifices economic efficiency (total wealth) for the benefit of more economic equality. However, mounting evidence suggests that “the trade-off between efficiency and equality may not exist” and that excessive inequality leads to negative consequences in the economy over the long run in terms of economic efficiency.

Professor Mankiw also presents a biased view on minimum wage.  In his textbook, he contends that a minimum wage causes a surplus of labor supply and thereby leads to unemployment.  While this statement might seem sensible based on simplified graphs, it is not necessarily true in real life. For instance, a comparative study of the fast-food industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania found that increasing the minimum wage did not decrease employment levels; notable economists including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz have confirmed these results.  While some have made the argument that Ec 10, as an introductory course, cannot delve into nuance, simplicity used in the service of ideology inhibits students’ intellectual growth.

Similarly, Professor Mankiw asserts an uncritically supportive position on free trade, believing it beneficial for the economic development of all countries. While free trade often yields positive results, trade issues are complex.  The world’s most developed countries have utilized various forms of government intervention in the market to grow their industries.  Also, the World Bank and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs, implemented during the 1980s and 1990s, which required indebted developing countries to completely open their markets to free trade policies in order to receive loans, failed on several counts.  As Rick Rowden explains in Deadly Ideas of Neoliberalism, Structural Adjustment Programs led to worse health outcomes, increased poverty, and decreased economic growth.  By neglecting to mention the real-world effects of free trade policies, Professor Mankiw encourages students to view economics in terms of oversimplified models rather than in terms of actual people and issues.

Discussion and debate are some of the most important aspects of a liberal arts education.  Yet, while such discourse is prominent in the scholarly economic community, it is largely missing from Ec 10.  Many critics of the Ec 10 walkout have argued that this action was tantamount to attacking ideological freedom in universities.  However, the point of the walkout was not to silence conservative viewpoints, but rather to protest Professor Mankiw’s monopoly over the presentation of economics to over 700 students with little experience in the field every year.  We hoped that the walkout would stir debate among the student body about the issues that the Occupy movement raises, such as economic inequality.  A broad liberal arts education should encourage students to think critically about what their professors teach, but Ec 10 does not promote such analysis.

Activism is a natural outgrowth of the liberal arts principles of critical thinking and a free exchange of ideas. Students should be encouraged to learn about and debate important issues, develop a vision of a better world, and then, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change they seek.” Thus, we hope that the Ec 10 walkout, a political action with its roots in intellectual concerns, will help advance the causes of economic justice and open discussion.

Gabriel H. Bayard ’15 and Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash ’15 live in Wigglesworth Hall.

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