Innovation in Higher Ed, 1680 Edition

Does anybody read Bagehot’s Lombard Street any more? You totally should, it’s full of good stuff. It’s baffling to me, as a sometime teacher of History of Economic Thought, that most of the textbooks and anthologies don’t mention him at all. Anyway, here he’s quoting Macaulay:

During the interval between the Restoration and the  Revolution the riches of the nation had been rapidly increasing. Thousands of busy men found every Christmas that, after the expenses of  the year’s housekeeping had been defrayed out of the year’s income, a surplus remained ; and how that surplus was to be employed was a question of some difficulty. In … the seventeenth century, a lawyer, a physician, a retired merchant, who had saved some thousands, and who wished to place them safely and profitably, was often greatly embarrassed. … Many, too, wished to put their money where they could find it at an hour’s notice, and looked about for some species of property which could be more readily transferred than a house or a field. A capitalist might lend … on personal security : but, if he did so, he ran a great risk of losing interest and principal. There were a few joint-stock companies, among which the East India Company held the foremost place : but the demand for the stock of such companies was far greater than the supply. … So great was that difficulty that the practice of hoarding was common. We are told that the father  of Pope, the poet, who retired from business in the City about the time of the Revolution, carried to a retreat in the country a strong-box containing near twenty thousand pounds, and took out from time to time what was required for household expenses… 

The natural effect of this state of things was that a crowd of projectors, ingenious and absurd, honest and knavish, employed themselves in devising new schemes for the employment of redundant capital. It was about the year 1688 that the word stock-jobber was first heard London. In the short space of four years a crowd of companies, every one of which confidently held out to subscribers the hope of immense gains, sprang into existence… There was a Tapestry Company, which would soon furnish pretty hangings for all the parlors of the middle class and for all the bedchambers of the higher. There was a Copper Company, which proposed to explore the mines of England, and held out a hope that they would prove not less valuable than those of Potosi. There was a Diving Company, which undertook to bring up precious effects from shipwrecked vessels, and which announced that it had laid in a stock of wonderful machines resembling complete suits of armor. In front of the helmet was a huge glass eye like that of Polyphemus ; and out of the crest went a pipe through which the air was to be admitted. … There was a society which undertook the office of giving gentlemen a liberal education on low terms, and which assumed the sounding name of the Royal Academies Company. In a pompous advertisement it was announced that the directors of the Royal Academies Company had engaged the best masters in every branch of knowledge, and were about to issue twenty thousand tickets at twenty shillings each. There was to be a lottery : two thousand prizes were to be drawn; and the fortunate holders of the prizes were to be taught, at the charge of the Company, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, conic sections, trigonometry, heraldry, japanning, fortification, book-keeping, and the art of playing the theorbo.

Many of Macaulay’s examples, which I’ve left out here, are familiar, thanks to Charles Mackay and more recent historians of financial folly. (Including everyone’s favorite, the company that raised funds “for an Undertaking which in due time shall be revealed.”) The line about Pope is also familiar, at least to reader of The General Theory: Keynes cites it as an illustration of the position of the wealth-holder in a world where the rentier had been successfully euthanized. But I, at least, had never realized that the diving suit was a product of the South Sea bubble. And I’d never heard of this spiritual ancestor of Chris Whittle and Michelle Rhee.

It would be interesting to learn more about the claims that were made for this company, and what happened to it. Alas, Google is no help. Although, “Royal Academies Company” turns out to be a weirdly popular phrase among the Markov-chain text generators that populate fake spam blogs. (Seriously, guys, this is poetry.) We can only hope that today’s enterprises that promise to give gentlemen a liberal education on low terms  (or at least an education in japanning and/or ski area management) will vanish as ignominiously.


Elsewhere on the World Wide Web: Some UMass comrades have revived the internet tradition of the grudge blog with this interesting new blog, with the Stakhanovite goal of refuting (tho thankfully not fisking) every post Greg Mankiw makes. It’s an ambitious goal, especially since the average wordcount ratio of an anti post to its underlying Mankiw post is running around 50:1. But they’re managing so far. You should read it. And if anyone wants to take a swing at the pinata, I think they may still be looking for new contributors.

So why aren’t I contributing? Mainly because time is scarce and I am very lazy, so blogging-wise I’m tapped out just keeping up a trickle of content here. But also, to be honest, because I have some qualms about the anti-ness of the left in economics generally. Anti-Mankiw is a great project, and I have nothing but admiration for the students who walked out of Mankiw’s class. But there’s a certain assumption here that we on the left have a well-developed alternative economics, which the Mankiws of the world are ignoring or suppressing. If only that were true.

Right now I’m teaching macro, and I’m presenting basically the same material as everyone else. ISLM, AS/AD, and their open economy equivalents. How come? Well, partly because I feel a certain professional duty. Students signed up for a course in intermediate macroeconomics, not in J.W. Mason Thought. (That will be next semester.) But mainly because it’s the path of least resistance. I don’t know any good textbook that presents the fundamentals of macroeconomics from a genuinely Keynesian or radical perspective. And working up a course by myself would be vastly more work, and I don’t think I could do it justice. A downward sloping AD curve, let’s say, is absurd. There’s no real economy on earth in which the main effect of deflation is to stimulate demand via a real balance or “Keynes” effect. It pains me to even put it on the board. But what’s the counterhegemonic model of inflation I should be teaching in its place?

It’s not just me. I know a number of people who are unapologetic Marxists in their own work, yet when they teach undergraduate macroeconomics, they use Blanchard or some similarly conventional text. It’s a structural problem. I don’t mean to defend Mankiw, but in some ways I think those of us on the left of the profession are more to blame for the state of undergraduate economics education. We spend too much time on critiques of the mainstream, and not nearly enough developing a systematic alternative. Some people criticize radical economists for just talking to each other, but personally I think we don’t talk to each other nearly enough.

The anti-Mankiw that’s needed, it seems to me, isn’t a critique, but an alternative; as long as we’re arguing with him, he still gets to decide what we’re talking about. That’s one reason I prefer to spend my time debating people like Krugman, DeLong, John Quiggin, and Nick Rowe, who I respect and learn from even when I don’t agree with them. (Another reason is that attention is a precious resource and I prefer giving the bit I get to allocate to people and ideas that deserve it.)

It’s true that the ideological policing in economics is very tight—but mainly at the top end, and even there mostly not at the level of undergraduate teaching. As far as I can tell, most places nobody cares what you do in the classroom; there’s already plenty of space for alternatives at schools that aren’t Harvard. But people mostly aren’t using that space. In my experience, even when people want to bring a “radical” perspective to undergraduate econ, that means presenting the mainstream models and then dissecting  them, which preserves the mainstream view as the default or starting point, when it doesn’t just leaves students confused. “Radical” economics almost never seems to mean simply teaching economics the way we radicals think it should be taught.

So yes, Occupy Mankiw, by all means. But maybe we should also think more about the classrooms we’re already occupying. Or as a graffito that should be familiar to the male fraction of anti-Mankiw says:

Start your own hit band or stop bitching

EDIT: If anyone reading this wants to suggest good models or resources for what an undergrad economics course ought to look like, I’d be thrilled to hear them.

FURTHER EDIT: Lots of suggestions. I need to walk back a little: There are more good alternatives to Mankiw  & co. than you’d guess reading this post. But the key point is still, we need to move past critique and develop our own positive views. As long we’re responding to him, he’s setting the terms of the conversation. Read about, say,  Paul Sweezy in the 1940s — he was so admired not because he had such a cutting critique, but because he so clearly and confidently offered an alternative. (And because he was so charming and good-looking, but that sort of goes with it, I think.) We’ll be getting somewhere when, instead of rushing to rebut everything Mankiw says, we can say, “Oh, is that guy still writing? Well, forget about him — here’s the good stuff.”

So, the good stuff.

I should have mentioned two excellent macro texts that, while they are too advanced for the students I’m teaching now, really comprehensively describe the state of the art alternative approaches to macro: Michl and Foley’s Growth and Distribution and Lance Taylor’s Reconstructing Macroeconomics. If, like me, you;re more more interested in short-term dynamics than growth models, you might get a little more out of the Taylor book, but both are very good.

In comments, NKlein suggests Godley and Lavoie’s Monetary Economics: An Integrated Approach, which I know other people recommend but I’m afraid I haven’t read (tho it’s on my Kindle), and mentions that Randy Wray and Bill Mitchell are working on a new textbook. I believe Wray currently teaches undergraduate macro at Kansas City using Keynes’ General Theory as the primary textbook, which is not a terrible idea (tho it would probably depend on the students.)

A lot of people like Understanding Capitalism, by Sam Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt. Sam’s microeconomics textbook is also supposed to be good, if, god forbid, you have to teach that. (But the orthodox-heterodox divide doesn’t really exist in micro, I don’t think.)

Meanwhile, over on anti-Mankiw itself, Garth suggested — more or less simultaneously with this post — Steve Cohn’s Reintroducing Macroeconomics, and linked to a long list of heterodox texts. I’m only familiar with a few of the books on the list, altho most of the ones I do know are grab-bags of critical essays, which is not quite what I’m looking for. But clearly there’s a lot out there.

An Ant Not Even Thinking About Pissing on Cotton

Over at Crooked Timber, they’re discussing Martha Nussbaum’s new book on “Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.” Sounds like a real stinker. (Altho the thread has alerted me to the fact that I urgently need to read Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, so I guess Nussbaum is to thank for that.) Lots of good criticism of the book, there and at the discussion CT is responding to, but most everyone seems to accept at least the premise that there is a crisis in the humanities —  a “silent crisis,” says Nussbaum. Or as representative CT commenter puts it, “you won’t be able to get a BA degree from a land-grant university in twenty years.”

Really? This must be an extrapolation from the past 20 years, yes? So, ok, what’s happened to the humanities since 1990?

Here are the numbers, from the 2010 Digest of Education Statistics:

The federal government doesn’t designate particular subjects as “liberal arts,” as far as I know, so I’ve presented two possible definitions. The blue line is the narrower one: English, visual & performing arts, foreign languages, philosophy, and area/ethnic/gender studies. The red line includes all those, plus social sciences, psychology, interdisciplinary studies, and architecture.
What do we see? Well, there was a decline in the share of humanities degrees in the 1970s. But there was some recovery in the 1980s, and since 1990, the proportion has been flat: around 20% (for the broad measure) or a bit over 10% (for the narrow — basically English and its satellites — measure). Whether these proportions ought to be higher, I couldn’t say; but if crisis means a situation that can’t persist, then this is clearly not a crisis. Or at least, it’s a really, really silent one.

Why Do We Need Heterodox Economics Departments?

A comrade writes:

Economics is too important to leave it to the mainstream. Economic ideas and economists are very powerful at shaping and influencing the societies in which we live. We, heterodox economists, are a minority and we need our voice be heard. I’m afraid that the radicalism of “I don’t care the mainstream, I do my own thing” is the most conservative strategy. It leaves us as college professors teaching mainstream stuff with a heterodox twist but without any significant influence in the real world. Please, don’t take this wrong. I respect and admire those who like teaching at colleges as a way of life. I’m just saying that as a collective output is a suicide. Our battle is at research universities, central banks, finance ministries, international institutions and think tanks, where the presence of mainstream economist is overwhelming. We need to challenge and persuade them and for that we need to know their theories and methods.

I disagree.

Of course we don”t want to be cloistered. But there are many possible channels by which our work can reach public policy, social movements and the larger world. Shifting the mainstream of economics is only one possible channel and not, in my judgment, the strongest or most reliable one.

To take a personal example: I recently agreed to do some research work for a couple of state-level minimum-wage campaigns,giving them numbers on the distribution of workers who would be covered by the bills by industry and firm size and the profitability of the major low-wage sectors in those states. The people organizing the campaigns are now using those numbers for position papers, talking points for canvassing, op-eds, etc. I even went down to Maryland a couple weeks ago to testify before the legislature.

Of course you need some basic knowledge of econometrics and the relevant literature to do this kind of work. But do you need the kind of knowledge you’d need to be a cutting-edge labor economist? No, obviously not; I’m not a labor economist of any sort. And yet, I would argue, this kind of direct work with practical political campaigns/organizations is at least as likely — more likely, IMO — to produce concrete policy changes and to shift the public debate, than an effort to master the techniques of mainstream labor economics, publish sufficiently on the minimum wage to move the consensus of the profession, and then count on the “official” representatives of the profession to pass the message on to policymakers. Fundamentally, I don’t agree that our battle is at research universities, central banks, etc. Our jobs may be at those places. But our battle is with people engaged in practical political work and organizing. This isn’t (just) a moral stand; I think the implicit assumption that the consensus of the economics profession is first shaped by the quality of the arguments made on various sides, and then transmitted to politics, is not applicable to the real world. If you want to contribute to political change, you need to be part of a political project; winning debates within the economics profession doesn’t help. The recent history of macroeconomics shows that clearly, no?

There’s a second point. The idea that we should be orienting our training around learning to persuade the mainstream assumes that “we” already know what we want to persuade them of. But that’s not the case. On most of the big questions, we don’t have any consensus on what the right answers are, even if we’re confident they’re not what’s taught in most programs. And the project of developing an alternative economics is very different from the project of persuading people of an alternative economics. The second would require talking — and having the tools to talk — with others. But the first requires primarily talking among ourselves. And the first has to come first. Economics is hard! And Marxist, post-Keynesian, feminist, institutionalist economics is just as hard as mainstream economics. (Albeit in different ways — less math, more fieldwork & history.) Unless we — meaning we heterodox/radical economists — are systematically building on each others’ work, there will never be an alternative view to persuade the mainstream of. Which means there needs to be spaces for conversations within radical economics, where we can critique and develop our own approaches, and for getting the training necessary to take part in those conversations.

All of us tend to exaggerate our own intellectual autonomy. (It’s a legacy of the Enlightenment.) We think we’re rational beings, who know what we want and choose the best tools to get it. But , means and ends don’t always separate so cleanly. You say you want a prestigious position only in order to have a better platform from which to advance progressive ideas, but soon enough the means becomes the ends. (I’ve seen it happen!) There can’t be left ideas without a sociological left — without a group of people who feel some objective connection with each other, have shared experiences and interests, share a common identity. Because ideas will accomodate to the situation of the person who holds them. (Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral.) We all think, no not me, but yes us too. If there aren’t at least a few settings in which specifically radical economics is professionally rewarded, we shouldn’t take it for granted that it will continue to exist.