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Setting the Record Straight

By Nick M. Phillips

During shopping week, I was quickly introduced to the typical gripes about freshman classes at Harvard: “there’s too much reading,” “the exams are brutal,” and of course, “the TFs are terrible.”  But there was one particular complaint reserved for Economics 10: “It has a conservative bias.”  A misunderstanding about the study of economics drives this common misconception.

To liberal students like myself and most other Harvard undergrads, economics can seem like an inherently conservative field.  Traditionally liberal policies, such as a highly progressive income tax, are often grounded in arguments about social equality and fairness.  Conservative policies tend to be rooted in arguments about the efficiency of free markets.  Thus, in a class that focuses on explaining how markets work, students will inevitably be exposed to more arguments used in favor of conservative policy than liberal policy.  This apparent bias is not due to Professor Mankiw’s political leanings, but to the nature of the subject.

Another major reason for the misconceptions about Ec 10 is the confusion between academic economics and policy economics.  Economic policymakers engage in debate about what policies governments “should” employ, including welfare systems and redistributive tax programs.  Ec 10 deals with the fundamentals of academic economics, a field that explicitly avoids making statements about what “ought” to happen, and concentrates on explaining economic data in dispassionate terms.  This means that although it is true that liberal economic policies are not heavily covered in the class, students should recognize that conservative policies are not given any more weight.

The fact that Professor Mankiw uses his own textbook is often used to fuel the argument against Ec 10—students complain that his personal, conservative opinions are given too much weight in the course—but it gives us an easy way to test those allegations.  If Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics” were really a conservative-leaning textbook, then surely it would contrast with that published by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.  Although Mankiw can reasonably be labeled a moderate, Krugman is a veritable liberal firebrand.  But the fundamentals of the two books are the same.

The reason for the textbooks’ similarities is simple—the basic methods of economics taught in Ec 10 are not politically controversial.  There are not competing schools of thought when it comes to the supply and demand curves.  Both books show that taxes generally result in outcomes that create less total surplus than if the market was left to its own devices.  They both also note that government intervention can help avoid market failure and provide some amount of equality that the invisible hand does not.  Critically, neither of these points is itself an argument for government policy; they are non-partisan statements about observable economic outcomes.

Liberal complaints about Ec 10 are nothing new.  In 1997, when Martin Feldstein taught the course, students distributed pamphlets protesting a “conservative bias.” Students aligned with the Occupy movement made headlines last November when they staged a walkout to draw attention to their criticisms of the course.  In an open letter to Professor Greg Mankiw, the students wrote that, “A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models.”  It is certainly reasonable to ask that professors consider different interpretations and challenges to controversial theories, but no one would insist that an introductory language course present alternative interpretations of verb conjugations.  Ec 10 deals with the basic language of economics, and there is not much controversy about it.

The open letter written last November said, “we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines.”  That is why I am taking Ec 10, and I believe many of my classmates made the same choice.  The analytical methods and theories presented in Ec 10 are absolutely applicable to a wide range of fields, and it is a shame if students are discouraged from taking the course because of the unwarranted complaints it receives.

Criticizing Ec 10 also does an injustice to Professor Mankiw, whose opinions were made clear in the first lecture when he took a jab at a classic liberal punching bag: George W. Bush.  He projected a picture of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke giving a speech with W standing on his left; above Bush’s head, Mankiw put a speech bubble that read, “What the heck is he talking about?”  Would he make the same joke about Romney?  I think not, but I am equally convinced that Mankiw’s Ec 10 is fair and balanced, and that anyone who does not take the course out of fear of being brainwashed by right-wing economic theory is only doing detriment to him or herself.

Nick M. Phillips ’16  is a crimson editorial comper living in Greenough Hall.

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