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.