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Marglin and Mankiw

In “Occupy Economics,” I mentioned Stephen Marglin, a radical Harvard economics professor who got tenure before the crackdown of the 1970s, and who is still there teaching an alternative undergrad economics course. He has to his name a number of absolute classics of radical political economy: “What do bosses do?” (Part I, Part II), with more than a thousand citations according to Google Scholar; Growth, Distribution and Prices, which builds a grand model unifying Marx and Keynes; and, edited with Juliet Schor, The Golden Age of Capitalism, a collaborative history of the postwar boom.

Last month he used a public lecture to weigh in on the student walkout from his colleague Greg Mankiw’s class, on the history and approach of his own alternative course, and on the prospects for changing economics:

Some Highlights

What it’s about:

This is not about Greg Mankiw . . . The striking thing about economics texts . . . is how similar they are, not how different they are, whether they’re written by Republicans like Mankiw or Democrats like Bill Baumol and Alan Blinder, or for that matter Paul Krugman . . . I really liked the innocent defense by a student . . . who defended the ideology of Econ10. She said the class was about pure economic efficiency. Ideology comes into play when we determine how to balance efficiency with social equity. Mankiw said the same thing in an interview with NPR shortly afterward, but he didn’t say it as succinctly . . . The point here is that this is a mainstream ideology, it’s not Mankiw’s ideology. Mankiw is perfectly right when he says that his text is a mainstream text and his course is a mainstream course. Economics is about efficiency, and politics is about value judgments.

Why there is a heavy dose of mainstream economics in his alternative course:

You can’t criticize something if you don’t understand it. It is the easiest thing in the world for mainstream economists to dismiss 99 percent of the criticism because it comes from people who literally don’t understand what they’re talking about . . . Even if you end up as a critic of mainstream economics, as I do, mainstream economics is the language of power. If you want to operate in this world, you have to deal with power, and you have to speak the language of power.

The initial response to the proposal for his course:

The attitude of my department was well-summed up by the former head of Econ10 . . . who said, ‘Look, there are two kinds of economics — there’s good economics, and there’s bad economics. We do good economics. If you’re doing something else, it must be bad economics.