You Can Always Tell A Harvard Man, But You Can’t Tell Him Much

Greg Mankiw, the Harvard professor who was recently walked out on by several students in his undergraduate economics class, wrote about it in today’s (4 December 2011) New York Times. In his words,

“On Nov.2, a group of students staged a walkout of one of my lectures. In an open letter to me, the organizers said the action was meant ‘to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement.’ They said that ‘the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America.’”

Mankiw was very gracious in his characterization of the event and the protesting students. He pointed out that his textbooks, like Samuelson’s earlier classic, were main stream and said that

“I don’t view the study of economics as laden with ideology. Most of us agree with Keynes, who said ‘The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.’”

His letting Keynes speak for him was clever since the students had complained that the course needed more balance. By balance, they said they needed more Keynes to balance out Adam Smith. I was struck at the time of the protest (November 2) by the arrogance of students protesting the content of a course they hadn’t completed yet. I guess Harvard only admits the clairvoyant.

I have a special reason to be interested in this incident because Mankiw, in the latest editions of two of his text books (February 2011) quoted me in a sidebar on the topic of—of all things—Why You Should Study Economics. What he quoted, on pages 14 and 15 of the Sixth Edition of Essentials of Economics, were excerpts from a commencement address I gave in 2003 to the Economics graduates of the University of Texas.

Maybe I was partly responsible for the Harvard protesters’ thinking Adam Smith got too much ink since I was quoted, in part, saying that

“For my money, Adam Smith’s invisible hand is the most important thing you’ve learned by studying economics. You understand how we can each work for our own self-interest and still produce a desirable social outcome. You know how uncoordinated activity gets coordinated by the market to enhance the wealth of nations. You understand the magic of markets and the dangers of tampering with them too much. You know better what you first learned in kindergarten: that you shouldn’t kill or cripple the goose that lays the golden eggs. . . .

I went on to cite the contemporary relevance of Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy, how creative destruction works, how progress may be measured better by jobs displaced than by jobs gained, etc. Subversive stuff, huh? Sorry, Greg, if I added to your burden.

The entire commencement address is on my web site However, I’m having technical difficulties at this time and it can’t be accessed. Try later if you are interested.

Comments (3)

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  1. Brian says:

    I really like this line from the above.

    “I was struck at the time of the protest (November 2) by the arrogance of students protesting the content of a course they hadn’t completed yet. I guess Harvard only admits the clairvoyant.”

    In economics courses, a synthesis of the ideas and paradigms is often given later in the semester. For example, students learn that the U.S. is probably more like a mixed economy than a true free market system and that elements of Keynesianism and free market economics come together to give us what we have today. Undergraduate students like those that walked out should wait to understand how these ideas work in today’s world and how they clash rather than pretend like they know would should be.

  2. Brian says:

    Also, most of those students that walked out and want more Keynes being taught don’t realize that Keynes wanted Roosevelt to devote money to military spending in order to spur economic growth. This school of thought that is critical to Keynes is known as military Keynesianism. It’s leftist adherents accuse Keynesian policies of accelerating the growth of a military-industrial complex.

    These “Occupy Boston” students are the same crowd that protested the Iraq War, only 8 years removed. They don’t understand just how different from them the thinkers who authored the ideas they embrace really are.

  3. John B says:

    A famous economist believed “creative destruction” would lead to the collapse of our capitalistic society which would be replaced by a socialistic society. The way things are shaping up now it looks like “creative destruction” is bringing us a plutocratic society. Thats what the “Occupy” folks are worried about.