Sucharita Sinha Mukherjee
COPYRIGHT: American Review of Political Economy; Sucharita Sinha Mukherjee
Introduction and Context
Recent conversations in the academia (followed by the media) have reopened concerns about the misogyny faced by female economists in the discipline[i]. While the quantification of evident sexism in the discipline is concerning and deeply problematic it does not come as a surprise to female practitioners both within and outside the academia as past and recent[ii] research amply demonstrates the unequal experiences of female economists at a range of academic experiences from securing tenure, to getting credit for coauthored work, to receiving equal compensation. A part of this is undoubtedly is an extension of the general misogyny in the workplace faced by females but a large part of the problem can undoubtedly be traced to the continuing lack of diversity within students selecting the economics major thus feeding into the narrative of an economist as essentially male and typically White[iii]. As extensively documented by Bayer and Wilcox (2017), women, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and Native Americans remain severely underrepresented as students within the Economics major[iv]. The same authors conclude from an extensive analysis of data, “the rate of majoring in economics among males edged up, on net, from about 2.5 percent in 2001 to about 3.1 percent in 2015. The rate of majoring in economics among females drifted further below 1 percent over the same period, and, overall, the imbalance in the gender composition of economics majors worsened slightly. The rate of majoring in economics among URM male students is closer to, but consistently below, that of white males.” Goldin (2015) notes 10/20% of all male undergraduates in the 100 top ranked universities and 100 top ranked liberal arts colleges without undergraduate business majors chose to major in Economics but finds “differences in the male and female rates of majoring in economics are large and do not appear to be narrowing.” Nationwide, Goldin (2015) notes, 2.9 male students become economics majors for each female major relative to the numbers of BAs of either sex. These puzzling statistics seem especially confounding given the rising share of female students of all BAs in the United States.
In a case study discussing the context of Adams College in particular, Goldin (2015) finds that a number of female students drop out of the economics major after taking introductory classes and many do not attend college with an intention of choosing a major in the subject. While a large percentage of both male and female high school students are unfamiliar with economics at the high school level it seems that male students may be drawn more easily to the discipline. Further, there are disproportionately more male students who take AP Economics courses (Goldin, 2015) which also implies their curiosity/interest/role-model related familiarity with the discipline prior to college. A large percentage of students attracted to the discipline are those who are comfortable with quantitative reasoning and see economic models as “practical” applications of mathematical tools and the rest view it as a stepping stone to degrees in Finance, Business or Accounting. While the range of issues within the ambit of economics is clear to scholars and graduate students, popular perception regarding the contents of economics centers around areas like business, money and finance. As pointed out by Goldin (2015), “It is likely that males have a stronger desire to work in financial and corporate sectors and see economics as their ticket to success in those realms.” These ideas are fueled and sustained in the introductory courses taken by students. Textbooks, primarily neoclassical in their methodological focus, emphasize on rational self-interest maximization and self-correcting market models and restrict the discussion of economic concepts to the allocation of goods and services. The relevancy of economics as a social science capable of addressing contemporary social questions such as inequality or the gender wage gap is obscured by the focus on individual level decisions by the “economic man” devoid of social markers such as race, gender and nationality. On the macroeconomic side, students are introduced to concepts such as the GDP or the stock markets which provide at best half-baked measures of economic progress. So called “heterodox” approaches such as Feminist, Institutionalist, Marxist which amply discuss issues of broader social interest remain in the margins potentially accessible to students who persist through the introductory sequences and sometimes absent throughout the entire undergraduate curriculum. It is no surprise that many students lose interest. As a starting step to making the discipline more accessible and inclusive it is necessary to delve deeper into the content and the focus of the discipline at the introductory level which sets the stage for attracting a limited demographic. This paper reviews some of the reasons why it is imperative for introductory courses in economics to become broader in their focus, discusses some common pitfalls in the existing content of those courses and ends with some suggestions for transforming pedagogy in introductory classes.
Rethinking Introductory Courses: Introducing Methodological Pluralism and Broader Content
Why is this important?
The need to make economics more inclusive stems from at least three reasons.
- The failure of economics to be inclusive affects both the direction of development of the discipline as well as the functioning of the economy in practice. As stated by Bayer and Wilcox (2017) “In short, the identities of the incumbents matter. If white males—especially ones who come from privileged backgrounds—are disproportionately left in charge of the field, then we as a profession are likely to see one particular set of problems as most demanding our attention, and we are similarly likely to see one particular set of solutions as providing the most compelling remedies to those problems. But change the identity of who is participating in the policy process, and we are likely to change both the problems that are seen as important and the solutions that are seen as most promising.”
- Making economics more inclusive by attracting a larger student body will help develop a richer discipline catering to the needs of a diverse populace especially as some students move on to research and higher education. At present this is far from the case. As found by Lundberg (2017) the percentage of women who hold a Ph.D. and assistant professors has remained stagnant over the decade, has declined at the level of associate professors with tenure and only 13% of full professors at PhD granting institutions are female and 24% of at non-PhD granting ones. Among tenure track positions females occupy an increasingly smaller percentage of the total as ranks ascend from new PhD to full professor. Data also suggests a negative relationship between the extent of research intensity and the representation of women in doctoral and non-doctoral departments combined (CSWEP, 2017). Since this implies that researchers in economics are primarily male, misrepresenting the actual composition of the economy, this also means a lopsided composition of economic problems being researched.
- Attitudes and concerns of economists who are policy makers influences everyday economic decision-making. Introducing pluralism in methodology and content is essential for developing a framework of effective solutions to socio-economic challenges ranging from Climate Change to Family Friendly Labor Market Policies. This approach will help economics establish validity as a social science that is effective in designing public policy in conjunction with other social sciences as opposed to one which appears to have a one dimensional reliance on markets and individual action.
- Most students (from among those who take introductory classes) will not pursue higher education or choose professions directly connected to economics. But, comprehensive knowledge about the functioning of the economy is essential for social participants in order to make informed decisions in their daily lives as well as select legislators who would most appropriately represent their interest. Dominance of individuals of a particular race/gender would sway economic priorities and conversations in the direction which favors that group
- A more holistic economics education will help dispel myths about the scope of the economy and the methods of addressing economic questions. Some such common misconceptions center around issues like-
- Is the government necessarily “bad”?
- Is race and gender the subject matter of sociology or economics?
Pitfalls of Introductory Courses
An overwhelming share of introductory economics courses taught across the US use one or the other of three texts authored by Greg Mankiw, Robert Frank and Ben Bernanke et al. or by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells. While some other texts are also used, their broad focus and content closely resembles these “bestselling” texts and hence it is quite safe to scrutinize the perspectives of these three texts which possibly dominate the market for introductory texts in economics. While expected, there are differences between the texts, but the similarities in terms of the overarching philosophy, the methodological focus and the content list is what appears more striking[v]. These in some sense define the scope of the discipline to students during their very first exposure to the discipline.
At the outset, the “definitions” of economics suggested in the introductory chapters of these texts and the lists of core principles of the discipline enumerated in these texts serves to both constrain the subject matter discussed in classes and also obliterates discussion of the heterogeneity of human experiences which is an indispensable element of a social science.
Both texts by Frank, Bernanke et. al (2016) and Krugman &Wells (2009) open their introductory chapters by quoting Alfred Marshall who spoke of economics as “a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” While most of us would agree with this view it is important to keep in mind the evolution of that “ordinary business” in terms of the complexities of the human experience. Social consciousness for example incorporates issues like gender and race and despite adequate and developing richness in the discipline to address constraints and concerns posed by institutional hierarchies, these discussions are completely absent from any of these texts.
Turning now to the definitions offered. All of those involve notions of choice, scarcity and decision-making. For example, Frank, Bernanke et al. (2016) describe economics as “…the study of how people make choices under conditions of scarcity and of the results of those choices for society” while Krugman & Wells (2009) define economics as “the social science that studies the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services” and then go on to note “every economic issue involves, at its most basic level, individual choice- decisions by an individual about what to do and what not to do.” To students who have little knowledge of the subject matter of economics both these definitions might be problematic in terms of implications. Focus on production and consumption of goods and services rather that the producers and consumers is problematic and while the connection might seem pretty obvious to experienced practitioners the rhetoric is enough to drive away young students more explicitly interested in the human condition. While the former definition (Frank, Bernanke et al.) includes a human element it highlights the individual as the cornerstone of analysis and does not help add perspective to economics as a social science.
While most of us would agree on the centrality of choice as a critical human problem equally important is to understand the fabric of conditions under which people make those choices such as government policies and institutional constraints defined by social conditions such as race and gender, economic class and the like. None of those issues appear in the definitions. Further, actual choices made by consumers depends on their income (budget) but none of the mentioned definitions make any reference to sources and constraints to earning that income. By placing the individual at the center of analysis, making them completely responsible not only for their choices and outcomes and by not discussing the heterogeneity of human experiences in motivating those choices, economics is presented as a discipline divorced from the real processes and contexts of making choices. It is also important to remember that choices vary in terms of their complexities. For example, while individual choice (to an extent) works well to explain buying of goods in Target and Walmart (Krugman & Wells, 2009) it presents at best a lopsided view when discussing more complex choices such as women’s participation in paid employment. Notably, the authors simply present an example to demonstrate how innovation of household appliances helped to reduce the opportunity costs of female participation in paid work but deeper analysis by feminist economists have shown that there were notably more factors at work (Goldin, 2006). While recent developments within neoclassical economics such as behavioral economics as well as a variety of perspectives discussed by feminist economists, development economists, Institutionalists etc. provide a rich context of understanding human choices, students in their first courses in economics learn none of those perspectives. It may not be surprising that many maybe disinterested in what appears as a mechanical description of human decision making.
The very first economic models provided in these texts are those of the production possibilities frontier and the circular flow of income. While the former helps to introduce students to ideas of scarcity and opportunity costs, it centralizes the concept of economic growth as the main goal of an economy. The latter, while introducing notions of exchange, employment etc. narrows down an economy’s building blocks to activities of firms and homogeneous households. Prioritizing on production, distribution and consumption in introductory economics crystallizes in a substantial share of coursework focused on demand supply and markets. While demand and supply have their benefits in terms of developing an idea of allocation and exchange they are at best only one of the aspects of economic decision making.
Introductory texts posit an almost unwavering faith in the invisible hand to settle any sort of transaction hurdles encountered by economic actors. While the broad reasons for supporting a market (as opposed to a command economy) lies in a belief in freedom and individual agency the often simplistic definitions provided in introductory texts leaves out or under-emphasizes negative or unrealistic implications of markets. As noted by Krugman & Wells (2009),
“[In a market economy] there isn’t anyone in charge. The United States has a market economy in which production and consumption are a result of decentralized decisions by many firms and individuals. There is no central authority telling people what to produce and where to ship it. Each individual producer makes what he or she thinks will be the most profitable; each consumer buys what he or she chooses….The alternative to a market economy is command economy, in which there is a central authority making decisions about production and consumption.”
This framework sets the stage for markets being regarded universally beneficial and while leaving room for interventions such as provision of public goods, addressing imperfect competition (antitrust laws) and externalities (environmental protection laws), it does not adequately illustrate the more realistic scenarios of mixed economies. Not only does this mean that the economy is “neither to be shaped by, nor to shape, the prevailing social structure” (Knoedler & Underwood, 2003) it also feeds into popular jargon (especially enunciated by politicians) for example, defining Northern and Western European economies as “socialist” when in reality these economies are very much capitalist and market driven apart from some sectors like healthcare and education and in some cases childcare where large scale government support paves the way for higher life expectancy, lower poverty and growing female labor force participation rates. In fact, the very use of the term “market failure” to make the case for public action serves to establish the dominance of markets as the norm for resource allocation. Students are not only not introduced to concepts like poverty and inequality but also remain unaware of complex issues surrounding the provision of healthcare and education which constitute important economic questions of the day. By positing markets against a completely non-market alternative introductory texts do not adequately allow for the discussion of alternate provision mechanisms for alternate goods and services and thus make the distinction between healthcare and apples, oranges or computers!
The other area of disconnect is the superficial and often strained distinction between positive (descriptive) and normative (value judgments or prescriptive) economics almost ubiquitously mentioned in the first chapters of introductory texts. Even while the role of value judgments is widely accepted in economic thinking – introductory texts continue to try to describe human behavior as an objective unified pursuit of self-interest often relying on Adam Smith to suggest any human action related to the common good (welfare) as purely unintended and even accidental. For example after quoting Smith, “[H]e intends only his own gain and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” Krugman & Wells (2009) go on to write “Ever since, economists have used the term invisible hand to refer to the way a market economy manages to harness power of self-interest for the good of society” and note later ”One of the key themes in microeconomics is the validity of Adam Smith’s insight: individuals pursuing their own interests often do promote the interests of society as a whole.” The importance of Smith and markets notwithstanding, the problems with regarding self-interest as the ultimate goal and working towards the common good as purely accidental is problematic. The two most striking issues are a) the accidental nature of doing good for the society and b) the vague nature of what comprises social good. Nowhere else is this conflict better illustrated than in the ideas of consumers and producers surplus aka neoclassical welfare economics which confounds students and has little intuitive meaning. This elevation of self-interest and competition as a guiding principle of human behavior reflects the intrinsic quest of neoclassical economics to become value free and objective and separate itself from personalized, inexact social considerations (Nelson, 2017).
As demonstrated amply by feminist economists, the role of altruism and cooperation is inherent in critical economic activity like childcare or housework (Schneider & Shackelford, 1998). But the framework posited in introductory economics cannot lead itself to analysing economic activity which does not have market value. The rather narrow and mechanical boundaries of economic thinking outlined by introductory texts leaves little room for questioning assumptions and recognizing the rich alternative methodologies which meaningfully critique these assumptions and undoubtedly serve to stretch the ambit of the discipline (Strassman, 1997). This tension is evident in introductory economics texts which even while mentioning equity as a valuable economic goal implicitly prioritize efficiency. Equity is often dismissed as fairness and very rarely revisited as a goal for economic policy. So, while Krugman & Wells (2009) do note, “It’s also important to understand when and why the individual pursuit of self-interest can lead to counterproductive behavior” this appears more of an afterthought rather than an overarching theme in the texts which then go on to critique public policies like minimum wages solely on grounds of disrupting market efficiency.
How do we make Introduction to Economics more Pluralistic/Inclusive/Inviting?
These concerns about the content of “mainstream” economics are not new (see for example Schneider & Shackelford, 1998) and the challenges of changing the curriculum remain stubbornly resistant. It is worth understanding the challenges before we consider and propose solutions.
Challenges of changing the curriculum
Dominant methodologies and accompanying pedagogy in introductory courses present some roadblocks to incorporating change:
- The dominant perspective is homogeneous and individualistic. It is hard to combine it with perspectives which incorporate an understanding of heterogeneous and especially non-monetary factors influencing choice. Notwithstanding instructor emphasis on the assumptions of the market model (aka perfect competition) and discussions of market failures making room for government interventions, introducing the study of economics with discussions of markets and exchange without reference to contexts which influence market access (such as race, gender and class), necessarily regards any subsequent approach (which considers these questions) as non-mainstream or heterodox and therefore of secondary importance. Included in this ignored set also are concerns related to the environment which is ironically the source of much of the resources (grouped together as land or natural resources) which prices seek to allocate. The government automatically becomes the “other” pitted as “taking away” from the individual. Introductory economics thus allows very little room to discuss the true context of policies such as family leave or the benefits from a minimum wage. It does not help to understand non-market work or poverty simply because those do not fall within the purview of monetary valuation. Since racial minorities and females are disproportionate recipients of minimum wages and women across races engage in larger share of unpaid work this restrictive approach often prevents a meaningful discussion of race and gender apart from the “add and stir” approach critiqued widely by feminist economists.
- Conversations on topics like economic growth without discussions of issues like distribution and economic inequality imply that the fruits of growth would automatically trickle down (a fallacy that seems to dominate the minds of policy makers as well). However critically analyzing the losers and gainers of policy and looking at the redistributive effects requires placing the goal of equity on at least an equal footing with the goal of efficiency while also stressing the connections between equity and dynamic (long term) efficiency. Obsession with efficiency in economics is related to the quest for finding objective and exact solutions to complex economic problems. While the discipline of economics inherently embodies a study of trade-offs, the teaching of economics often becomes a quest for precision.
- Instructors in introductory courses in a large percentage of institutions find themselves in a rush to teach students an encapsulated version of a complex discipline. This in part has stemmed from the growing popularity of professional majors like Accounting and Business which “require” some amount of economics knowledge for their students. This has accordingly led educators and textbook writers/publishers seek to deliver knowledge following a formula which has been in practice for decades, which effectively eliminates the human dimension of the discipline, and focuses on the production of goods and services which is seemingly more relevant for these students.
Imagining Pedagogical Changes
These concerns within economics are not new (see for example Bartlett, 1995; Aerni, Bartlett et al., 1999). The fact that we are still where we were decades later in critiquing mainstream approaches is what is concerning. While STEM disciplines have been successful somewhat in turning or at least arresting the tide in excluding gender and racial minorities, we in economics, have not succeeded even partially[vi]. An introspection is imperative for us for remaining relevant. It is time for us as instructors to ask ourselves what our goals are when we seek to introduce economics to students. What we do want a student who will perhaps take one economics course in their lifetime to understand about economics and also about the economy? What do we want to teach students in an introductory class so as to attract a diverse student body to the discipline? It is time to revise the focus of economic thinking to ideas that deliberately promote the common good and thereby attract students who find it useful to focus on disciplines which work towards that end. As is evident from the history of economic thought, the relevancy of economics as a discipline relies on its ability to evolve with the times. Quoting the Board of Directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2013), Bayer & Wilcox (2017) note the importance of an inclusive curriculum for “reversing the current stratification of higher education”. How do we achieve that goal in economics?
Long term solutions have been proposed expansively and have been adopted at a limited number of institutions making use of alternate curricula. These include rewriting and rethinking the contents of introductory courses to include Feminist, Marxist and Institutional perspectives (see for example Knoedler & Underwood, 2003). This calls for a concerted effort to dismantle the hegemony dictated by dominant textbooks and the creation of a new introductory curriculum which includes a broader perspective of the economy in terms of not only markets, national income accounting and the monetary system, but also race-gender gaps in economic achievements, constraints to market access and the distribution of income. Such solutions are however practically infeasible in the vast gamut of institutions especially as the study of economics becomes relegated in some as a prerequisite to business or a related professional field. Further the discipline seems to be trapped in its own vicious cycle with those with the maximum power to institute curricular changes in the academia may have the least incentive or willingness to do so. However, even in the short run, there is scope to change the “face” of the discipline, to salvage it from becoming irrelevant and abstract in introductory courses and to teach students meaningful information which would make their learning productive, insightful and hopefully attract more students to pursue more courses. Short term solutions primarily need to be focused on changing the rhetoric of introductory classes by finding meaningful ways of inserting and including alternative viewpoints and critiques of the mainstream ideas.
- The first pedagogical step is to include and increase the representation of women and minorities in examples of economic activity presented in introductory texts. While such representation may have slightly gone up over time it remains pitifully low[vii] and economic activity is primarily depicted as masculine[viii].
- People like to see themselves in the economy to be interested in it. Including topics useful to diverse individuals from the fields of economic development, feminist economics or issues involving race and gender will more accurately present the scope of the discipline and attract more students to the fold. Introductory classes present material that overwhelmingly interests white male students (Ferber, 1995; 1997). Female undergraduate students may be disenchanted by the content of economics being limited to the “business of money making” and while both female and male students associate economics with finance and money, female students are more likely to be negatively influenced by this perception (Zhu, 2013). On the other hand, female students may be more inclined to work with others and engage in activities benefitting others and may be more interested in studying issues such as income distribution or poverty (Bansak & Starr, 2010). Introducing some of these topics which include notions of redistribution and altruism may help shift the relentless focus on competition as the only goal of economic action.
- Standard introductory classes tend to be lecture oriented where students typically have the textbook as their sole reference (Aerni, Bartlett et al, 1999). Jensen & Owen (2001) point out that female students are more likely to appreciate the relevance of economics when group problem solving is used in larger classes while the reverse is true for male students. It is therefore essential to mix up a range of pedagogies to engage a variety of participants. Further, for classes with a heterogeneous student body, it might be useful to encourage students to form study groups intentionally. Mixing up the participants by gender and race can help students form bonds and exchange experiences resulting in the internalization of learning. Intentionality of instructors in providing talking points and discussion opportunities can help sharing of personal experiences forming the basis for collective understanding. Further the discussion pedagogy implies that “students are actively engaged in the production of knowledge, as opposed to being the passive recipients of teacher imparted “truth” (Shackelford 1992). Discussions could help introduce thought provoking conversations in class which could easily be supplemented by additional reading beyond the textbook. An example could be centering discussion around a theme like unpaid work which is a critical and completely neglected area of policy (see for example Razavi, 2017). Feminist economists have provided substantial framework for the discussion of unpaid work which lends itself to reference even at the introductory level (Schneider & Shackelford 1998). A topic like this could all at once be used to discuss the notion of work, the gender division of labor, the role of education in gender empowerment, care labor, child care policies and so on. As suggested by Nelson (2017) the existence of unpaid work as a superstructure beneath paid work also helps question the ideas of supposed self-sufficiency often projected by the concept of the economic agent. Therefore, these discussions could also help extend the class content beyond the limited mainstream paradigm. Topics associated with social relations could help draw more women into the field (Bansak & Starr, 2010) and provide a more complete understanding of economic activity which is not limited to pecuniary ones.
- Rather than increasing/changing content changing the perspective of discussion may achieve meaningful outcomes. Economics needs to be presented as a discipline, a social science which teaches students not only about buying or selling apples, corn and computers but also one which focuses on the buying and selling of labor which is distinct from the product market. For example, discussing the constraints of supplying labor in terms of the acquisition of human capital or discussing the minimum wage not only as a mandated price floor but as a living wage that helps individuals acquire resources to help potentially break the vicious cycle of poverty could help students understand the trade-offs of different policies. Further discussion of the labor market provides a good way to insert a conversation of power dynamics which is an inherent part of any economic transaction (Schneider & Shackelford 1998). Few introductory texts include a realistic study of labor markets especially as distinct from product markets.
- As a discipline priding itself as the self-acclaimed “queen of social sciences” modern economics teaching often lacks any connection with other social sciences and introductory courses often provide students “little knowledge of history or of other disciplines” (Knoedler & Underwood, 2003). Principles courses can be the ideal ground for fostering these connections and understanding the role of the economy within the broad ambit of the society and polity. Individual texts can effectively be supplemented by readers[ix] helping students to develop more holistic perspectives. Easily accessible newspaper articles from local and national newspapers or podcasts from NPR or TED Talks are other options which could be used to connect the classroom to the world. Alternately, as suggested by Knoedler & Underwood (2003) understanding the differential approaches of great economists like Smith, Marx, Veblen or Keynes could help students understand the evolution of economics and economic thinking making it much more amenable as a vehicle of addressing social change.
- An important advantage of studying economics is to be able to use numbers to tell stories. This is another area which introductory texts could tap into to provide relevance to proposed models and also provide meaningful data-based critiques. Topics like immigration or inequality or family leave can all be addressed by making use of cross country and national data. This not only provides students with necessary skills of retrieving and reading data but also helps them connect the classroom to the world outside. Reducing the abstractness inherent in models helps make the discipline much more tangible. Further, data provides another way to introduce differential economic outcomes by gender, nationality or race.
- While teaching macroeconomic indicators like GDP there is room to discuss more expanded indicators like the HDI or the GII. While discussing a macroeconomic statistic like unemployment, there is scope for instructors to incorporate the race gender dimensions of it. Further, discussing these indicators could provide useful opportunities for discussing the limitations of all economic statistics such as the exclusion of unpaid work from GDP or discouraged workers from the measurement of unemployment. As pointed out by Strassman (1997) this approach encourages the use of caution and critical thinking while using economic measures in contrast to regarding them as absolute holistic indicators which they are not.
All of this could work to demonstrate the true breadth of the discipline to students instead of misrepresenting it in terms of one basic product market model in microeconomics and limiting “economy wide” concerns to growth/GDP.
- While marginal analysis may have its relevance to practitioners, positing that as a central method runs the risk of confusing students at the onset. Do human beings really always think of marginal costs and benefits? While lending itself to an easy use of Newtonian methods (calculus) marginal analysis really says nothing new about the economy. The use of the Cobb-Douglas production function in microeconomics could produce mathematically elegant solutions but are labor and capital and occasionally natural resources substitutes when in reality they may be complements?[x] Instead the scope of discussing exchange can be expanded to include conditions of exchange. Consumer rationality can be dissected to incorporate alternate responses (behavioral economics) and the black-box of technology can be discussed from an institutional perspective while discussing the theory of the firm. Further, given the popularity of psychology as a social science among female students (Goldin, 2013), understanding thought processes rather than assuming them as given might be a way to change the way economics is perceived by female students.
- Emphasis on economic efficiency as an overriding goal connects directly with the obsession for preciseness and measurability within the discipline. Notwithstanding the importance of quantitative analysis, measurability has its limits as we know, and students must be taught to embrace these limitations. While institutions may find themselves at crossroads attempting to reject the dominant goal of efficiency in neoclassical models which often leads to a curriculum including econometric analysis and neat ceteris paribus conclusions, the world around is not explained effectively by a focus on economic efficiency alone. By leaving out the political narrative of what is economically wrong with inequity and ethical ramifications of the same, policy analysis remains incomplete at best and inaccurate at worst. For example, as discussed by Berik (2017), Chant & Sweetman (2012) and others, the overriding case for gender equality proposed by policy makers as well as international organizations in recent years has been couched under arguments of efficiency suggesting that gender equality might lead to increased growth. In reality, growth and gender equality may neither be connected nor beneficial to the other. Linking every economic outcome to efficiency is problematic in ignoring the intrinsic value of equity. Critiquing mainstream economics’ obsession for efficiency could be a good way to introduce pluralism in the curriculum. Doss (2017) for example points out that the trade-offs inherent in providing women equal access to land. This example could be used to introduce the importance of gender equal land distribution which though inefficient in the short run could enhance wellbeing (through poverty reduction) and social justice as co-important economic goals. A similar approach could be used when discussing issues like the minimum wage. Women, Blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate share of minimum wage recipients and while unemployment might well be a consequence of minimum wage increase policies may be justified on the basis of a different set of (equally important) economic goals. Another example of introducing this ambiguity is during discussion of questions of climate change (Daly, 2017). Environmental challenges if discussed in introductory classes are often in the context of externalities which challenge market allocations. However, a more meaningful discussion can be facilitated by discussing environmental factors from a sustainability perspective making conservation of resources a useful goal for its own sake.
What I have proposed here again is not new. What amazed me after I completed my draft are some of the remarkable parallels I came across in the thoughts of others in the academia (see for example Feigenbaum, 2013). This implies many of us in the profession have been uncomfortable for many years in presenting a limited and often lopsided view of the discipline to our students and have continued to struggle in incorporating changes. Perhaps the authors of introductory texts ought to take note from McCloskey (1992) who notes, “Majoring in economics can teach about economics, but not how to do it.” He goes on to note how most individuals especially young students cannot learn to “think like an economist” at the onset but introductory courses could benefit them by providing material so that, “Our undergraduates, and most of our graduate students, can learn a lot about economics that they can use in life.” Further, setting up and outlining a fixed set of principles for the entire discipline not only constrains its purview but also “ignores the evolutionary character of both the economy and the study of economics” (Schneider & Shackelford 1998). Perhaps it is time for us to place ourselves in the shoes of our students and their thoughts and concerns instead of continuing to force upon them ways of thinking and seeing the economy in one particular way and getting converts of those who sympathize with that and disinterest a large majority. Perhaps it may be useful to teach them more about how “societies organize themselves to provide for the survival and flourishing of life, or fail to do so” (Nelson, 2017). Introductory courses seem just the place to begin that rethinking. While it does imply that instructors themselves would need to continuously educate themselves and engage in pluralistic thinking, it definitely seems a useful venture.
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Not surprisingly, the dominant philosophy spills over into “Core Principles” presented in the texts. A sample of some of these will lend support to the idea that in addition to being disconnected with real lives these principles may also provide quite misleading ideas about the content of economics to a novice student.
- From Mankiw (2017):
- “Principle 3: Rational People Think at the Margin”. Why is this principle relevant for explaining the scope of economics in their first economics class?
- “Principle 4: People Respond to Incentives.” This might be true, but their responses may vary depending on institutions and other economic constraints. So, any one incentive may produce a gamut of different responses and therefore designing incentives from a policy perspective must take into account the complex conditions of responses.
- “Principle 5: Trade Can Make Everyone Better Off.” This is an especially problematic statement to make especially as critiques of neoliberalism have amply shown the obvious downsides of free trade.
- “Principle 8: A Country’s Standard of Living Depends on Its Ability to Produce Goods and Services.” By limiting the scope of the economy and highlighting production this serves to misrepresent the content of the discipline.
- Frank, Bernanke et. Al (2016):
- “The Scarcity Principle”- “…having more of one thing usually means having less of another…” Involves a disproportionate importance given to goods and services.
- “The Cost-Benefit Principle”. Narrows all economic decisions to one mechanical rule.
- Krugman & Wells (2009):
- Once again begin their introductory chapter with scarcity, choice and marginal decisions.
- Also discuss the gains from trade and specialization.
[i] This was recently triggered by the work of by Alice Wu (2017). By analyzing more than a million posts on econjobrumors.com (an online forum used by some economists in the academia to discuss job openings and candidates) Wu found evidence of multiple derogatory references to female economists who were likely to be evaluated in terms of their physical attributes while males were evaluated in terms of intellect.
[ii] See for example Sarsons (2017).
[iii] For example, Gittleson (2017) finds that in the United States only 13% of economists in permanent positions are women and only one female economist, Elinor Ostrom in 2009, has been a recipient of the Nobel Prize in the last half century.
[iv] Between 2011-15 while 57.3% of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in any discipline were female and 20.6% were Black/Hispanic/Native American (the authors call this group underrepresented minorities (URMs)), just 31.3% of majors in economics were female and a mere 11.8% were URMs (Bayer & Wilcox, 2017).
[v] The appendix to the paper includes a short review of some of the core principles outlined in the introductory chapters of the books which illustrates their remarkable parallels of content.
[vi] In this context, it is important to point out that the dearth of female majors in economics has sometimes been attributed to the quantitative leanings of the discipline. Supposed greater “math anxiety” among female students is posited as an explanatory factor driving them away from economics. Bayer & Wilcox (2017) from their extensive study of data from 2011-15 find that the percentage of white female students majoring in mathematics exceeds the percentage majoring in economics making the gender composition in mathematics and statistics more balanced compared to economics. Further, Goldin (2013) notes that adjusted for an equal number of majors by sex there are more female business majors per male business major than female economics majors per male economics majors. That is to say, in undergraduate institutions with a business and economics major offered, female students choose the business major at relatively higher rate than they choose the economics major. This suggests that students with leanings towards mathematics may be focusing on mathematics while those with the business leanings may be choosing to study business instead of either choosing economics.
[vii] In contrast with Feiner & Morgan (1987) who point out the women and minorities were mentioned in 1.3percent of reviewed pages of introductory texts, Feiner (1993) and Robson (2001) find such references to have gone up slightly.
[viii] Betsey Stevenson’s presentation at the ASSA (2018) notes that introductory texts continue to primarily cite male economists and business leaders and examples of gender roles in these texts remain predominantly stereotypical (mentioned in Tankersley & Scheiber, 2018).
[ix] Examples of such texts could be Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner by Marcal (2017) for a feminist perspective or Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America by Ehrenreich (2011) for a perspective on life in poverty and public policy.
[x] Daly (2017) points out that the exclusion of natural resources from the standard neoclassical production function and the inclusion of capital (man-made factor of production) stemmed in an era where capital was relatively scarce in contrast the limited supply of natural resources compared to machinery in recent times. While the environment could possibly be left out of production stories in the 18th and even 20th century the 21st century does not allow such an option. However, conventional economic models timelessly continue to focus on labor and capital alone.