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A Tale of Two Ec Classes

By Noah S. Rayman, Crimson Staff Writer

CORRECTION APPENDED

On a campus long known as a cradle for aspiring money-managers and a primary destination for Wall Street recruiters, over 750 enrollees packed the seats of Sanders Theater last year for Social Analysis 10—Ec 10—the College’s iconic introductory economics course. Two years ago, there were 800. Three years ago, the number topped 900—nearly a seventh of the undergraduate population.

But, says Economics professor Stephen A. Marglin ’59, there is another option: Social Analysis 72, an introductory look at the subject that dares to question what has become a religion for some. It’s a course that opposes the political bent of noted Ec 10 leader and former advisor to George W. Bush N. Gregory Mankiw. It’s a course with its own dissident history that, Marglin says, is as relevant as ever given the current economic climate. To some, it toes a Marxist line. But for Marglin and his followers it’s simply the little class that could: a powerful gadfly in the face of dominant economic wisdom.

“I think it’s fair to say I’m more liberal than most of my colleagues,” says Marglin, whose most recent book was titled: “The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community.” A tenured professor at Harvard since 1968, he says he is aware of the uniqueness of his outlook within the Littauer building, home of the Economics Department. “I don’t think there is anybody who shares my views,” he says.

But six years ago, Marglin found a permanent pulpit for those views in the form of a core class, overcoming the opposition from his own department. His revolutionary course—designed after a coalition of undergraduates known as Students for Humane and Responsible Economics (SHARE) formed a petition lobbying for a more liberal alternative to Ec 10—sought to offer a more critical introduction to the field of economics that would still incorporate basic economic principles.

Marglin says the class was largely structured around his own criticisms of Economics that he was putting together in his book. But he also wanted to incorporate a more holistic history of criticism. As advertised, the syllabus offers an array of economic ideologies, including writings from Adam Smith to John Keynes, and from Marglin to Mankiw himself (but no Karl Marx).

The course’s distinctive, left-leaning flavor was readily apparent against the backdrop of a department that appeared to have accepted the elevation of “mainstream economics” to a “fairly hegemonic position,” according to Marglin. By the time of Social Analysis 72’s inception, former Ec 10 Professor Martin S. Feldstein ’61 had stopped offering the specialized, “radical” sections that offered a Marxist critique to the Ec 10 curriculum. And it had been nine years since he had phased out Marglin’s guest lectures.

It’s an attitude whose authority may have been shaken by the recent economic downturn, Marglin notes. “Non-economists have much less faith in economists and in mainstream economics than they did two years ago,” he says.

“The economics profession will probably be the last to know it.”

A FLAGSHIP ALTERNATIVE

Marglin originally intended his class to be an alternative to the Microeconomics half of the full-year Ec 10 course—a viable lead-in to the class’ second semester. But the Economics Department, in an overwhelming vote that featured only two dissenters, elected not to count Social Analysis 72 for concentration credit, meaning that the course, to this day, fails to serve as a prerequisite for most high-level economics courses.

“In the view of my colleagues, there’s two kinds of economics—there’s good economics and there’s bad economics,” he says. “If I wasn’t doing their economics, than I couldn’t be doing good economics because that was what they were doing.”

Instead, Marglin’s course fulfills Core as well as Gen Ed requirements, and also meets the economics requirement for Social Studies, the third-largest undergraduate concentration. The first year that Social Analysis 72 was offered, 79 students enrolled—a figure that correlated almost exactly with a drop in enrollment in Ec 10. Since then, the course has consistently seen enrollment levels of over 70 students, although, according to Head Teaching Fellow Andras Tilcsik ’05, that number dropped to 60 this year.

Currently taught by Professor N. Gregory Mankiw, Ec 10 remains a two-semester course that serves as the introductory anchor for the Economics Department. “Ec 10 is supposed to be the flagship of the department,” says Mankiw, whom Marglin considers a “colleague and friend.”

The Ec 10 curriculum follows Mankiw’s own textbook, “Principles of Economics,” which Marglin had used for his course until switching for a textbook with more liberal authors because he says it fits better with his specific course.

“The striking thing is how similar the two texts are,” he says. “Despite the fact that Mankiw was known as a conservative economist.”

For his part, Mankiw says that he believes his course exposes students to mainstream economic principles without substantial methodological bias. “I try as best I can to keep my personal political philosophy from what we do in Ec 10.”

“Ec 10 has really been a leading course nationally in terms of how introductory economics should be taught,” says Economics Department Chair John Y. Campbell. “My colleagues and I think that the course is a broad mainstream introduction to the economics field.”

Jeffrey A. Miron, director of undergraduate studies for the economics department, says that Social Analysis 72 does not fulfill the introductory requirement for the economics concentration because it doesn’t cover all of the material offered in the two-semester Ec 10 course. But while it does not count for concentration credit, he said, the economics department still endorsed the course because “we’re not about shutting down options.”

Professor Feldstein, formerly of Ec 10, does not believe Social Analysis 72 to be an alternative for the full year course. Rather, he explains in an e-mail, it is for students who have taken Ec 10 “and want to see a particular school of criticism.”

“There are various other critiques of mainstream economics…that students could read about but that are not taught in the department,” he writes.

“Some people might call it a liberal critique or a Marxist critique,” says Miron of the course. But, he says, there can be a clear division between the views of the professor and the particular curriculum.

Miron says he tries no to let his views come out in his intermediate microeconomic theory course. But like Marglin, he offers a different course in which his views align more closely with the curriculum, entitled “A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy.”

And at their base, the various economic courses might not be so different. “Supply curve still slopes up and the demand curve still slopes down,” says Miron.

—Elyssa A.L. Spitzer contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff Writer Noah S. Rayman can be reached at nrayman@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION

An earlier version of the Oct. 29 news article "Alternate Ec 10 Gains Popularity" incorrectly attributed a quote about the national and departmental reputation of Social Analysis 10—or Ec 10—to Jeffrey A. Miron, director of undergraduate studies for the economics department. In fact, that quote came from the department's chair, John Y. Campbell.

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