A Tool, Not A Theology: Confusing positive economics with normative judgments

By Mark Truman, MPP ‘13

Last week, around seventy Harvard students walked out of Ec 10 – the popular economics class taught by renowned economist Gregory Mankiw – in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  In an open letter to Professor Mankiw, the students cited their “discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course” and demanded that the conversation within the classroom broaden to include more economic perspectives.  While their protest has certainly gotten attention for their cause, their deep misunderstanding of the fundamentals of economics weakens the group’s intellectual critique of the material.

By any standard, the walkout was a success.  Across Harvard, a conversation has erupted about the value of the material taught in Ec 10.  Even beyond the course, the students have successfully reminded the public that Gregory Mankiw is not simply an economics professor; he is also a policy advisor – to President Bush and candidate Romney – whose work directly impacts national economic policies. Editorial Cartoon (Econ Walkouts) by Kate Sheridan

But the critique that students have offered – the intellectual attack on the material that Mankiw has presented – falls flat.  For the most part, it’s clear that students do not have enough information to conduct a serious intellectual appraisal of the material.  When they claim, for example, that “there is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory,” they reveal how little they know about the class and the field.

Little of microeconomics is based directly on Smith’s work – other economists over the last 200 years are responsible for the models taught in Ec 10 – and Mankiw himself is an incredibly strong advocate of Keynes, devoting a large chunk of the second semester of the course to New Keynesian models.  It is difficult to take students seriously when they demand that Smith – a microeconomist who is only tangentially important to the course – be replaced by a macroeconomist who receives top billing in the second semester.

As a course assistant for a HKS economics course, however, I find that such a critique echoes more developed concerns that I’ve heard from students at the Kennedy School.  Economics, in their eyes, is primarily a theology, a set of models that exist primarily to justify conservative economic policies that place the interests of markets ahead of the interests of the community.  Students – frustrated by an alien value system – are resistant not just to the models put forward in the class, but to the idea that models of microeconomics have any worth at all.

Yet, like the Ec 10 students who conflate macroeconomics and microeconomics, the students at HKS confuse positive economics – the neutral description of economic phenomena – with normative conclusions that express value judgments.  In other words, the models presented in API-101 (or Ec 10) are simply tools, models economists can use to understand how markets are working in the real world.  It will be up to the next generation of policy makers – the students at Harvard – to adjust and create policies that are both informed by economic realities and based on moral values.

But students cannot expect to reduce economic disparities if they actively resist learning the material.  And while the Occupy movement has blasted corporate America for perpetuating inequality, it has also called for increased education, transparency, and discussion, all goals that are synonymous with the opportunities students at Harvard have to engage with professors and material.  Students must learn the foundational aspects of a discipline to critique it, and they must master the fundamentals to innovate and create new systems of understanding.

The fact that students at times disagree with the material as it is presented is a feature, not a bug.  Education is a process of challenging both yourself and your ideas; there is no point to it if you only learn things you already know.  Like it or not, if students are going to occupy any location in the name of injustice, they should start by occupying their classroom.