The Institute Blog

Imagining a New Intro Economics

Yesterday, Harvard students of Ec 10 staged a walkout to draw attention to the bias they detect in the course. Here is their open letter to the professor, Greg Mankiw.

Curriculum reform has been central to INET's own project from the beginning. Here is the work of the Economics Curriculum Committee to date.

The problem of the typical economics class lies in an excessively narrow conception of the scope of economics, and of the research methods appropriate to the subject. This narrowness is pervasive but, as the reaction of the students demonstrates, especially jarring at the introductory level.

It doesn't have to be that way. Perry Mehrling, for example, has experimented with the intro course, and so have many others. As a constructive response, today INET launches its syllabus project 30 Ways to Teach Economics. Professors, send us the syllabi of your experiments, and let us know how it worked. Students, send us syllabi that you found particularly inspiring and provoking, and tell us why.

Submit syllabi here.

List of syllabi (will be updated):

syllabus-caldwell.pdf150.95 KB
syllabus-feiner.pdf112.07 KB
syllabus-foley.pdf67.03 KB
syllabus-leyden.pdf572.36 KB
syllabus-marglin.pdf184.88 KB
syllabus-mehrling.pdf197.2 KB
syllabus-nelson-macro.pdf128.99 KB
syllabus-nelson-micro.pdf144.53 KB
syllabus-ziliak.pdf213.51 KB



"There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory."

If you really believe in that, there is no difference - what reformed curriculum is pushed down the throats of these poor innocent children :-(


vvagr gets few marks for accurate reading: the quoted passage refers to Smith being (or not being) "more fundamental or basic" than Keynes, NOT to there being no difference between them.

Since some elementary logic is in question here, may I continue the lesson?

If there was indeed no difference between Smith and Keynes it would be hard to assert that one was more basic, etc. However, if they are different then one or the other might be more basic. But they might be regarded as having equivalently fundamental status within different paradigms (which seems the most plausible position to me, for what it's worth).


Economics has become corrupted. I mean that literally. There is even a book by long-time economics professor Dr. Mason Gaffney, called "The Corruption of Economics." In the book, Gaffney makes the case that neo-classical economics displaced classical economics over decades during the early part of the last century. Economics was a science before that, it hasn't been one since then.
Going back to first principles, J.B. Clark and others took the classical 3 factors of production: Land, Labor and Capital, and combined them into 2: Labor and Capital (Gaffney points out elsewhere that there is even a move to reduce the factors to just 1: Capital, as in Human Capital for Labor!).
Land (classically defined as ALL the natural elements of the universe) is nearly the opposite of Capital:
- Land is finite. Capital (goods) are only limited by Labor and Land availability.
- Land typically appreciate over time and from population pressure. Capital depreciates over time and can be replaced.
- Land was created by nature. Capital is created by humans.
- Land is indispensable to life: without Land, you die...instantly. Capital is important, but not vital. You CAN, if pressed, get water and food with your bear hands, and live in the wild like our cave-dwelling ancestors did. It's hard, but we did it throughout most of human history.

Unless we understand First Principles, nothing else matters. It's like trying to practice physics without accounting for gravity, or heat.


Both of these syllabi seem really good. I like Mehrling's idea of reading sources directly in order to introduce students into the language community. More often than not it is not the concepts in macroeconomics which are opaque or difficult, but the jargon and condensed style of economists themselves. Economic literacy certainly deserves attention.

As for Marglin, the idea of building the standard paradigm and then throwing challenges at it based on particular cases is great; it makes students really have to critically reflect upon the knowledge they've gained. Such examination not only reinforces basics, it teaches them to work creatively with economic problems and question paradigms, a standard function of the scientific method which too often seems forgotten by economics students. Really really great.


I have no beef with teaching the essential sources of economic thinking, including Smith and Keynes. But we cannot stop there. We also cannot pretend that economics is a science, or worse, a branch of mathematics. There is some excellent mathematical economics, but the problem is that it so often does not apply, while there are such strong perverse incentives for pretending that they do apply.

The deeper problem with existing economic theory is that it often does not ask the right questions, and it often believes (or in the worst case pretends to believe) that its equations apply where they do not. Worse still, much economic writing is intellectually and morally bankrupt, as in the conflation of Social Democratic principles with Soviet central planning. This pungent quotation from Adam Smith applies directly to the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe on Wall Street:

"Everything for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind."--Wealth of Nations

See Hayek, Friedman, Laffer, and Ayn Rand for the most egregious examples, mixed in each case with some genuine thought.

Smith asks what the purpose is of economics, in the form of the question, What is wealth? His answer is that wealth is not money, but rather the capability of producing _and distributing_ what the entire nation needs.

A further problem is that poverty is in large part defined socially, not by absolute wealth or income. The poor in the US in particular are defined by the laws against them, such as so-called Right-to-Work laws preventing workers from forming unions, zoning laws, lifetime limits on welfare, or confiscatory tax rates and losses of benefits for those emerging from poverty.

The Replacing Textbooks project of Sugar Labs intends to come to grips with these questions and others, in the form of digital learning materials for helping schoolchildren around the world, particularly the poor and oppressed, to come to grips with them in the circumstances of their own lives, and to begin a global conversation on the problems and the possible solutions.

Some good starting points for a new economics curriculum would be

  1. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom
  2. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class
  3. Joseph Stiglitz, The Roaring Nineties

The problem with the economics curriculum is much more serious than just the selection of topics. The basic problem is that economics is a dysfunctional discipline. Mainstream economists—not to mention those at the periphery—disagree fundamentally about crucial issues such as balanced budget, taxation, monetary policy, foreign trade, public programs, etc. If medicine were in the same state of confusion as economics is today, the plague, smallpox, and other old diseases would still be rampant, and the outbreak of any infectious disease would paralyze the nation. Physicians would be wringing their hands trying to convince the rest of the people that those things are beyond human control; while the quacks would be enriching themselves by selling ineffective or even harmful remedies. The economics discipline has degenerated to such extremes that it is now impossible to tell a quack from a serious economist.

I believe that the economics discipline must be reformed, preferable from the inside; otherwise, the dreadful economic problems the world is suffering will be unlikely to be solved anytime soon.

Please join the Reformation-E (the Reformation of Economics).


I am very glad that leaders in the field of economics are using the Ec10 walkout as an opportunity to reconsider the best way to teach the subject. I myself am not an economist, but I would like to offer the perspective of some of the students who walked out, as expressed in their op-ed for the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper:


Here's what's wrong with the field of economics: economists steadfastly refuse to give any consideration to the most dominant parameter at work in our economy today - population growth. Just ask any professor of economics about the economic consequences of population growth and the concept of overpopulation. In response, you will be brushed aside and derided as a "Malthusian." You will be told that mankind is ingenius enough to overcome any challenges that population growth may present.

While all the evidence suggests that mankind has indeed been very clever in pushing back the technological challenges of stress on resources and strain on the environment, there is a fundamental relationship at work eroding our economy - one that mankind is powerless to mitigate: the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption. Beyond some critical population density, further overcrowding erodes per capita consumption as space constraints make it impractical to utilize various products. As an example, consider housing. The average dwelling space in Japan, a nation ten times as densely populated as the U.S., is less than one third that of the average American's - not because the Japanese enjoy living in such cramped quarters but because there is no room for anything else. Imagine the impact on the per capita consumption of all of the products and services involved in building, furnishing and maintaining housing.

While reduced per capita consumption may seem appealing from an environmental perspective, there is a serious problem: per capita consumption and per capita employment are inextricably linked. Rising unemployment and poverty are the inescapable result of a population density that continues to rise beyond a critical level.

All of this remains a completely foreign concept to the field of economics, simply because no economist since the seeming failure of Malthus' theory has had the courage to risk the scorn of his/her peers and revisit the subject of unending population growth. This is the challenge for a new generation of economists.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

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