Thought Control in Economics

A Textbook Insurgency

We sit around three clusters of whirring computers, watching our high school teacher read the lecture notes prepared from Harvard University professor Gregory Mankiw’s textbook, The Principles of Economics. “Trade always makes all participants better off,” he says. I glance at a friend across the room. We both know something is not right about this.

After class I talk with my friend about the economic evangelism we just experienced, the self-righteous dogma of the richest country in the world. Is this why we’re rich? Is the key to prosperity really as simple as “higher productivity”? Why haven’t the words “colonization” or “sweatshop” been brought up?

The next day I ask my teacher, “Don’t we have to take natural resources into account? Isn’t that the key to why some countries are richer than others – because they control the resources of other countries? And why does Mankiw’s book assume these resources continue indefinitely?”

My teacher mumbles in circles, avoiding any answers – the lecture notes forget to justify the unequal allocation of resources. He returns to the book’s PowerPoint presentation, insisting the root cause of prosperity is productivity. After all, there is a chart that confirms this: Look, the US has the highest productivity. Poor Africa, it’s so unproductive.

There is a certain seductive simplicity to Mankiw’s economic fantasies. Perhaps this is why his textbook is used all over the world. Still, my classmates and I prefer the truth. A few of us talk together after class. We can’t understand why our teacher clings so desperately to Mankiw’s doctrine, which says there’s a clear trade-off between equity and efficiency. Insist on equity, he wants us to believe, and nothing will work. Is this a study of how markets work, or just Bible study for capitalism?

I decide that if our teacher will not point out and discuss Mankiw’s shortcomings, I will have to take things into my own hands. I grab an article from Adbusters magazine called “Neocon Indoctrination the Mankiw Way” and try to look as inconspicuous as possible while churning out 15 copies of the essay on the school’s copy machine. Outside of class, I hand them out to my classmates. Later a friend and I cut out alphabet letters from magazines and paste them onto a copy of the article, spelling out, stalker-style: “Dear Mr. Totten, please enjoy this shocking document.” We place it in his box at school.

The article fails to get the response we hoped. “I just skimmed it,” our teacher tells us. “I don’t read meaningless stuff.” Try again.

Perhaps he’ll respond better to an indirect attack on his gospel of economics. I photocopy an article from Harper’s that calls for a new economic worldview – one that focuses on sustainability over growth. I distribute it to my classmates as well as my teacher, this time by hand. He eats it up. “This is exactly what I have been looking for,” he says. “It addresses a lot of the issues I have been thinking about lately. Thank you.” He even tells the rest of the class about it, recommending they read it. But when the lectures resume, nothing changes. He reverts to Mankiw’s script.

Well, almost nothing changes. My teacher preaches the same old theories, but now he prefaces the most nonsensical points with the claim that we must simply accept them in order to pass the college placement test. What can we do?

Meanwhile there’s a letter from Harvard University: I have been accepted. I ask my teacher if there’s anything he’d like me to pass on to Mankiw if I bump into him in the halls of Harvard. “Thank him for me, for making a textbook that explains everything so clearly,” he says.

But if I run into Mankiw next fall, I have a few questions I’d like to ask him first: Why does his textbook refuse to admit that it has a point of view? What social purpose does he think is served by the stock market?

If he fails to respond adequately to my questions or the ones Adbusters has posed to him in previous issues, he’ll hear some tough words from me about how the truth, and not trade, always makes participants better off.

– Jasper Henderson

Comments on the article “A Textbook Insurgency”

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Dr. Will Cummings

I have been teaching economics in College for nearly a half a century and could count on one hand the number of students that have made insightful comments like this. The author has a couple of factual misconceptions (that differences in natural resource bases in the most important element in trade these days) but otherwise he has opened his eyes instead of blindly accepting what he is being taught.

Dr. Will Cummings

I have been teaching economics in College for nearly a half a century and could count on one hand the number of students that have made insightful comments like this. The author has a couple of factual misconceptions (that differences in natural resource bases in the most important element in trade these days) but otherwise he has opened his eyes instead of blindly accepting what he is being taught.

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