The Problem with Conventional Economics (Part 1)

In order to fulfill a core requirement, I enrolled in Intro Economics taught by Greg Mankiw this past semester. As I go over my notes in preparation for the final, I am reminded of all of the absurdities taught as fact in this intro economics class. This would not upset so much except that the class, composed of over 700 people, is required of all economics concentrators and many of the students are freshman. Why does that matter? Firstly, requiring that economics concentrators’ first exposure to college economics is in a class teaching as fact traditional, conservative economic theory ensures that many of these students are molded into traditional, conservative economists. This effect is compounded by the high concentration of freshman: During first semester freshman year, we are all prone to take our professors’ words as fact rather than questioning the knowledge that is presented to us.

Getting to the point, the following two “facts” were “taught” to the students on the final day of class:

  1. The effects of international trade are just like those of technological innovation because there is no difference between a machine making cheap textiles and a Chinese worker in a sweatshop making cheap textiles.
  2. Workers in developing countries are paid less than American workers because they are less productive.

I’m tempted to not even comment on these statements because I’m not sure if I can capture the appropriate response in words, but I will say how I believe these statements capture the problem with conventional economic thinking. First of all, economists do not view people as individuals but rather as inputs into the economic machine. A Chinese worker slaving away in a sweatshop is not the same as a machine because the worker is a human being. Second of all, first principles cannot be applied to our world directly because there are many other factors at play such as, I don’t know, minimum wage laws. I assume (or hope) that Greg Mankiw knows this personally, but he should not teach students that they can take basic economic theory from a first year economic textbook and interpret the world with it.

And a final note: I am not an economist and do not claim to know as much as trained economists. But I don’t think it takes a trained economist to see the problems within conventional economic thought. The true irony of this class was that it was taught amidst the crash of the financial market, and yet made no attempt to discuss the problems with economic theory that could have led to the crash. Instead, the illusion that the invisible hand will always work its magic was perpetuated.