Saturday, November 5, 2011

Harvard, Economics, and Occupy Wall Street (hopefully more to come)

There have been many things that I have wanted to write about, but I have been more than a little lazy in putting my thoughts into words.  To be honest, I actually haven't been following the Occupy Wall Street movement that closely.  I will say that I am not necessarily supportive of the movement.  Then again, if you know me, you know that I am highly skeptical of almost everything.  I believe that recent controversy at Harvard is an example of the protest movement gone wrong.

The source of conflict is the professor of introductory economics at Harvard, Gregory Mankiw.  It is no secret that universities are made up of overwhelmingly liberal professors, so perhaps it is inevitable that a rather prominent conservative would cause quite a stir.  A group of students wrote an open letter to Mankiw explaining their opposition to the class's conservative agenda.  Around 70 students conducted an organized walkout on his lecture. I am somewhat dismayed, but not completely surprised to see a complete lack of understanding of basic economics from the Harvard students.  The letter states that "[t]here is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory."  Of course, it ignores the fact that the first semester (as in current semester) of the course covers microeconomics, while Keynes is famous for his macroeconomic theories.

This response to the letter and ensuing walkout is a good description of my feelings towards the issue.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that Mankiw is denying students a quality economics education.  I doubt that the material is much different from the material taught in AP Economics at high school.  Some of protesters have brought up issues of rent control and the minimum wage as examples of bias.  I remember both of these issues used as examples of the problems of price ceilings and price floors.  While there is certainly debate over the real effect of the minimum wage on unemployment, especially at its current level, there is nothing wrong with using it as an example of the theoretical impact of price controls.  Both are probably mentioned in every introductory microeconomics class.  Perhaps the students should attempt to understand the material before blindly disregarding it.

Having followed Mankiw's blog for the past few months, I can say with certainty that I have many conflicts with his proposals and opinions.  He is definitely a conservative in his economic policies, but he is not a blind political conservative.  For example, he is an enthusiastic supporter of a carbon tax, which also happens to be my ideal economic policy implementation.  Although I often disagree with Mankiw, I respect him as a PHD economist and a reputable source of economic happenings.  The departed students should trust his knowledge of basic economics.  There is nothing wrong with learning from someone that you disagree with.  Just suck it up and go to class.

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