Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Alternatives (to) economics 

In today's New York Times comes a story about a professor of economics at Harvard who wants to teach an alternative principles of economics course. Currently that department offers its principles course as a large lecture hall course of 800 students, taught for the last twenty years by former Reagan chief economic advisor Martin Feldstein. This seems all well and good, but a group of students calling themselves Students for a Humane And Responsible Economics or SHARE has come out with a petition to create an alternative course that provides "students with a more balanced perspective than is currently offered" by Prof. Feldstein. Professor Stephen Marglin is named as the person to teach the alternative class, and he seems keen to the task.
"I�d use basically the same materials. The articles in the sourcebook are somewhat biased, however, and they�d be dropped and replaced with other readings. About 1/4 of the course would be devoted to critiquing the assumptions of economics,� he said, adding that lectures with weekly sections for discussion would replace the section-based teaching of Ec 10.

The course is not intended to demolish Ec 10,� said Marglin. �It�s an alternative for those who want to work harder and who want a more balanced perspective of views than Ec 10 offers.�

We learn later on that SHARE had been recently revived as a student group in part by Jessica Marglin, the professor's daughter. In the Harvard Independent (link requires free registration), Quang Tran writes of how bored he is in the class and his belief that the class should be retitled "Principles of Martin Feldstein". At the end of the article he describes how much he enjoyed a guest lecturer who discussed basic human rights and economics. No mention, of course, that the guest lecturer would have been invited by Prof. Feldstein.

Of course, the president of Harvard is no mere babe in the woods in economics but Lawrence Summers, a former professor of economics and Treasury Secretary under President Clinton. Asked about the courses, Summers said,

�I certainly don�t agree with quite a number of Marty Feldstein�s policy views. It�s important to recognize that economics does bring a certain individual perspective to understanding social phenomena. ... I think it�s probably the case that Professor Feldstein�s views are closer to the center than certainly Professor Marglin�s and probably Professor [Dani] Rodrik�s [of the Kennedy School, who has been involved in this debate as well].�
Feldstein's course is fairly standard. He uses new CEA chief-designate Greg Mankiw's principles book as well as the readings which Tran complains about. We know as well that Mankiw spoke dismissively of the very supply-side propositions that Feldstein supported during his years with Reagan. Some right-wingers at the National Review don't even like Mankiw's appointment. Yet his book is a foundation of Feldstein's course (and, in the name of full disclosure, my principles course too). I've looked at the materials Feldstein has put online (the syllabus and course materials can be found here) and it's no different than thousands of economics courses taught in the US. He's been so prolific the last twenty years, is it any wonder he can put together a readings book of his own material? Don't we all wish we could?