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What the Economics Department Lets You Forget

Rethinking Economics

Students crowd the opening lecture of Economics 10b: Principles of Economics in 2017.
Students crowd the opening lecture of Economics 10b: Principles of Economics in 2017. By Casey M. Allen
By Maibritt Henkel and Mie L. Holm, Contributing Opinion Writers
Maibritt Henkel ’25 is a double concentrator in Social Studies and Economics in Pforzheimer House. Mie L. Holm ’25 is a double concentrator in Social Studies and Economics in Pforzheimer House. Their column, “Rethinking Economics,” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

One of the first things that the over 500 students who take Economics 10: “Principles of Economics” are taught each fall is the distinction between normative and positive statements; the distinction between stating how things are and stating how things ought to be.

Understanding the difference between the two is crucial to any social science. However, in Harvard’s beginner and intermediate economics courses, this acknowledgement of the field’s normative aspects feels more like academic housekeeping than a sincere invitation for students to think critically about the curriculum they study.

The Ec 10 series — like its later intermediate counterparts — quickly drops the pedagogy of other introductory social science courses, which typically emphasize discussions about methods, values, and theories of knowledge, instead accepting axioms about rationality and utility theory as given. Without questioning these fundamental assumptions, the implication becomes that economics, at its core, is largely a field of agreement.

The problem is, of course, that the laws of economics are not laws of nature. Economists can’t, in fact, observe and determine equilibrium prices and utility functions in the way that chemists can determine the rate of an enzyme-catalyzed reaction. Because, unlike when it comes to measuring enzyme activity, how we choose to model markets, prices, and human prosperity is a normative matter. And, of course, so is how we let those models shape our world.

Giving undergraduates the impression that economics is a value-neutral discipline, and that studying it will entail no further moral judgment or inquiry on their part, is not only dangerous but also intellectually dishonest.

Some will point out that methodologically economics simply has more in common with STEM disciplines than with “softer,” more qualitative fields like philosophy or sociology. Why else would a Harvard economics degree require both courses in math and statistics,but not a single other social science class?

For one, economics has its origins in philosophy and political science and only in very recent history did it become the highly quantitative, math-heavy subject that it is today. Beyond that, the notion that calculus is more important to studying the economy than ethics, history, or psychology still ignores just how socially constructed our current economic system is.

Ask a Government, History, or Social Studies concentrator to think critically about the models of voter behavior, cultural assimilation, or gender taught to them in their introductory classes and they’ll know what to do. Ask an Economics concentrator to think critically about the assumptions underpinning a supply and demand graph and, in our experience, they’ll have no idea where to start.

The point here is not that conventional models of markets or of GDP are inherently problematic. They can be useful approximations of how firms and consumers behave under certain conditions.

The point is rather that students across all disciplines, but particularly in the social sciences, should be equipped to recognize, reflect on, and potentially challenge the assertions being made in the material they are being taught.

Perhaps it is true that the price people are willing to pay for a good is the best estimate of their marginal utility.

Perhaps it is true that it is rational for a consumer to always prefer more to less.

Perhaps it is true that GDP growth is always desirable.

But those are assumptions about the world. And students should be invited to question them.

This kind of questioning need not involve reaching beyond Economics itself, which is actually a very heterogeneous field. Traditional supply and demand curves represent just one doctrine within the discipline: the neoclassical, and, these days, mainstream model.

Yet there are a range of other approaches. Post-Keynesian economics, for example, disagrees with the notion that full employment is reached in a competitive market, and foregrounds demand as the central determinant of economic performance. Or ecological economics, which takes seriously the interdependence of natural ecosystems and human economies. Or feminist economics, which problematizes the ways in which we have chosen to value labor.

Introductory classes should remind students that economists are not a monolith. Not all economists think GDP growth is the best metric to assess success in development. Not all economists think unpaid domestic labor should be omitted from national accounts. Not all economists think that labor unions diminish total worker surplus conditions. Letting undergraduates see the positive and normative diversity that exists not just at the fringes of the field but at its very heart, would empower them to engage more consciously and critically in their classes.

A Harvard economics degree ought to, in our normative opinion, entail a genuine reckoning with the moral stakes of the field. A discipline that studies human behavior and the distribution of resources was never value-neutral to begin with. As we face rising global temperatures, declining social mobility, and unpredictable technological advancement, now, more than ever, is the time to stop pretending.

Maibritt Henkel ’25 is a double concentrator in Social Studies and Economics in Pforzheimer House. Mie L. Holm ’25 is a double concentrator in Social Studies and Economics in Pforzheimer House. Their column, “Rethinking Economics,” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

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