Friday, November 7, 2008

The Textbooks: Introduction

Consider the university professor. What is his function? Simply to pass onto fresh generations of numbskulls a body of so-called knowledge that is fragmentary, unimportant, and, in large part, untrue. His whole professional activity is circumscribed by the prejudices, vanities, and avarices of his university trustees; i.e., a committee of soap boilers, nail manufacturers, bank directors, and politicians. The moment he offends these vermin he is undone. He cannot so much as think aloud without running a risk of having them fan his pantaloons.

~H.L. Mencken
"The universities," wrote Hobbes, "teach." Adam Smith preferred to say the same the other way around: "the discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters." Those amidst the general confusion on Wall Street, many with Ivy League educations, must agree more and more every day; those among them who know better surely learned more in their first month of professional life than they did in all of college. Yet, is not precisely that which they were taught about economics part of the problem? The incredible agnosticism (read: mendacity) of the discipline today needs to answer to the market.

Towards that end, it is time to reread the textbooks which define the undergraduate curriculum. We apologize in advance—reading textbooks intended for mass consumption in undergraduate courses carefully and critically is like taking candy from children. The authors of bestselling textbooks aren't trying to give an accurate or comprehensive overview of the principles of their discipline. They aren't trying to give students the basic tools they need to start reading research in the field. Textbooks are sloppy and inaccurate; cursory and question-begging: the image they present of a science is as hopelessly out of date as it is unimaginative and uncontroversial.

If, at best, an introductory textbook gives students a taste of the jargon particular to a disclipline, a taste for its home truths and native ideology, and a sense of superiority for being able to speak at least a little of the private language, a fortiori for economics. No other discipline is so politicized, so ideologized, or indeed so hegemonic in policy discussions -- no other social science's pretensions to scientificity so humored. The language of economics is ubiquitous in the worlds of policy and lawmaking, business and finance, and a congeries of mostly 19th-century vulgarizations of economic propositions is, there, the reigning Weltanschauung.

This is what the economics textbooks 'teach,' and it is our target. It should be remembered that economics textbooks as they exist today are a recent invention: Paul Samuelson’s valuable Economics (1948), path-breaking for the genre, came with a Nobel Prize. The discipline has come a long way since then, most of it in the dismal mode of mercury retrograde. In the preface to his book, Samuelson cites William James' The Principles of Psychology and Richard Courant's Differential and Integral Calculus as models; Marshall too, surely; unfortunately, no such legacy remains today.

Greg Mankiw’s Macroeconomics is first up, as it is the most widely used introductory text at places of higher learning: University of Chicago, MIT, Harvard, et cetera. Smith also said that “if a teacher happens to be a man of sense, it must be an unpleasant thing to him to be conscious, while he is lecturing his students, that he is either speaking or reading nonsense, or what is very little better than nonsense.” Our condolences to those who teach out of this book.

We’ll do a chapter a week—think of it as a critical study guide. We may be harsh at times, but we hope to always be fair: and if Mankiw is pushed to tears by any offense we may cause him, we hope he cries all the way to the bank.

Until then, please enjoy 'stand-up economist' Yoram Bauman's presentation, "The Principles of Economics, translated."

1 comment:

ry. said...

"Basketball star Lebron James understands opportunity cost and incentives. He skipped college and went straight to the pros, where he has earned millions of dollars as one of the NBA's top players."

—Chapter 1, Principles of Economics, Gregory Mankiw