Reading Mankiw in Seattle

A while back Nick Rowe challenged amateur internet econocranks (my word, not Nick’s) like me to actually go read an intro econ textbook. (He was specifically targeting the author of Unlearning Economics — who I, at least, don’t consider to be an econocrank, he’s far better-versed than I am, though Nick might.)

I took him up on the challenge, and am finally writing up my thoughts because I need to reference this from another post.

Figuring I ought to go straight to the belly of the beast, I picked up a used copy of Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Microeconomics. I didn’t read every word — I’ve been poring through various econ textbooks online, plus innumerable papers and blog posts, for years, so I knew a lot of it already. But I did go through it fairly carefully (especially the diagrams), and it had some of the effect that Nick was hoping for. Some of the things that I didn’t think were (sensibly) covered in intro econ, in fact are. And not surprisingly given my autodidact’s typical spotlight (and spotty) pattern of knowledge, I learned quite a few new things.

But still, my overall impression was amazement at what is not covered, and in particular what is not covered right up front.

In place of Mankiw’s nostrums about tradeoffs, opportunity costs, margins, incentives, etc., I would expect to see discussion of the fundamentals that underpin all that:

Value. What in the heck is it? How do we measure it? This was the topic of the opening class in my one accounting class, at the NYU MBA school. Basically: accounting for non-accountants, teaching us to deconstruct balance sheets and income statements into flows of funds. A darned rigorous course, taught by a funny and cranky old guy, formerly on the Federal Accounting Standards Board, with a young assistant prof playing the straight man and the enforcer. That first class was one of the most valuable (?) I’ve ever sat through.

The phrase “theory of value” doesn’t even appear in Mankiw’s text, even though he uses the term “value” constantly, and it’s obviously a term that has some import in economics. Imagine an undergraduate who’s had zero exposure to the ideas of subjective versus objective value, or the centuries of (continuing) discussion and debate on the subject, trying to parse the following sentence, and think critically about what it really means.

…we must convert the marginal product of labor (which is measured in bushels of apples) into the value of the marginal product (which is measured in dollars).

Money. What is it? What’s its value relationship to real goods, and in particular real capital? How is it embodied in financial assets? Where did it come from? (Hint: from credit tallies and for coins, military payments of soldiers, not barter between the butcher and the baker. That’s an armchair-created fairy tale.) The phrases “medium of account” and “medium of exchange” don’t appear in the book. Since economics is all about monetary economies, this seems like a significant omission.

Utility. The most fundamental construct in economics — the demand curve — is derived from utility maps. But Mankiw doesn’t even mention the term until page 447, where it’s discussed as “an alternative way to describe prices and optimization.” Alternative? There’s no discussion of ordinal and cardinal utility, or of the troublesome doctrine of revealed preferences (which 1. is the doctrine that allows economists to avoid talking about utility, 2. constitutes a circular definition, and 3. is never mentioned in the book).

All this gives me a feeling of indoctrination into a self-validating, hermetically sealed body of beliefs floating in space, with no egress outside that bubble, into thinking about the thinking going on therein. There are huge and not-wacky bodies of thinking out there that seriously question what goes on inside, often refuting it on its very own terms, and in the words of its own most eminent practitioners.

Yes, you could argue that I’m asking too much of undergraduates, but I would suggest that you’re asking too little (or the wrong thing) of undergraduate professors.

Is Mankiw teaching his “customers” to understandthe hallmark of the North-American higher-education system, in my opinion, compared to most other countries — or is he teaching them to adopt an undeniably ideological world view (no, neoclassical economics is not purely “positive,” not even close), and to just go obediently through the motions as prescribed in the textbook? In my opinion, he’s doing the latter.

I’m tempted to suggest that this is all true because (neoclassical?) economists don’t have a coherent or non-circular theory of value, and money, and utility. (Neither do I, but I’m working on it!) But saying that would make me sound like an internet econocrank.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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