The Unprincipled and Mythical Mankiw Principles of Economics

By William K. Black
May 15, 2016     Bloomington, MN

In this first installment I discuss the unacknowledged contradiction that lies at the core of the two meta-myths in the preface to N. Gregory Mankiw’s textbooks.  Mankiw is among the leading providers of introductory economics textbooks.  In his preface to these volumes he preaches his first meta-myth in his first substantive sentence about economics.

Economics combines the virtues of politics and science. It is, truly, a social science. Its subject matter is society–how people choose to lead their lives and how they interact with one another. But it approaches its subject with the dispassion of a science.

As it is preached by Mankiw, theoclassical economics is a dogma that repeatedly violates the most basic tenets of science.  It is unlikely that many scientists approach their work with “dispassion” – passion is one of the keys to success in many humans – but theoclassical economists routinely fail to bring dispassion to their dogmas.  Indeed, the first step in their adoption of the scientific method would be to renounce Mankiw’s first meta-myth.

Mankiw’s preaches his second meta-myth in the next paragraph of his preface.

Economics is a subject in which a little knowledge goes a long way. (The same cannot be said, for instance, of the study of physics or the Japanese language.) Economists have a unique way of viewing the world, much of which can be taught in one or two semesters. My goal in this book is to transmit this way of thinking to the widest possible audience and to convince readers that it illuminates much about the world around them.

Mankiw does not see the fundamental contradiction between his two meta-myths.  It turns out in his second meta-myth that learning economics is not really like learning a real science or even a language.  A “little knowledge” supposedly “goes a long way” in economics, unlike physics or learning Japanese.  What explains this paradox?  How is it possible for a subject as massively complicated as economic life, much less all the fields such as the family that theoclassical economists now purport to study and devise proper public policies, that a brief introduction in a freshman course “goes a long way” to actually understanding proper policy choices in such enormous spheres of life?

Mankiw’s does not understand how revealing his answer is to this paradox.  He actually preaches that economists are “unique.”  The sheer arrogance of the claim – offered with no proof or analysis – is staggering.  But the claim is also hilarious in context, for Mankiw purports to be explaining why economics exemplifies the scientific method.  Mankiw has just got done assuring the reader that “science was analytic, systematic, and objective.”  How is it, then, that economists are “unique” among scientists?  I can assure readers that economists are not taught some secret hand shake or statistical technique and are not secretly selected based on unique genomes.  Mankiw is making the opposite point – claiming that in two semesters of studying his “Ten Principles of Economics” he can turn your 18-year old freshman son or daughter into someone who will “think like an economist.”  Mankiw fails to understand that this means that economists cannot be “unique.” Mankiw teaches his ten commandments to anybody’s son or daughter regardless of whether they will become an economist, political scientist, physicist, or student of Japanese language and literature.  Even if economics had some unique “secret sauce” they would have given away the recipe many decades ago.

But consider the bizarreness of Mankiw believing that economists all “think” the same way.  Recall that the way he claims we think is not a result of our studying and believing in the scientific method – for then we would not be “unique” – we would simply be like all good scientists.  Mankiw is asserting that all economists share the same belief systems (creed).  Indeed, if you do not share his dogmas – his interpretation of his ten commandments – you cannot be a “real” economist.  Lots of professors believe they are demi-gods, but few go so far as Mankiw in drawing up his own ten commandments and then claiming that economists are unique because they all worship Mankiw’s commandments.  Recall that this is in the context of Mankiw preaching his first meta-myth that economists approach their field with pure “dispassion” as a “science.”

Economists are unique among scientists in the frequency, severity, and persistence of their errors.  No other field has such a disastrous series of predictive failures in modern times.  No other field gives Nobel awards to economists for preaching critical policy issues and predictions that have proved dead wrong.  Conventional economists claim that they should be judged on the basis of their predictive success.

Economists are unusual, but not unique, in their frequency of scoring low in altruism.  Part of this is self-selection.  Students who choose to study economics score lower in altruism.  There also appear to be learning effects.  After they major in economics students score even lower in altruism.  The ways that economists are unique, or at least statistically unusual, reflect badly on economists and economics.  Mankiw is a leading contributor to what makes theoclassical economics so dogmatic, false, and immoral.

3 Responses to The Unprincipled and Mythical Mankiw Principles of Economics

  1. James Cooley

    When I took Economics 101, over half a century ago now, one of the topics we discussed was how a professor at a large university could turn his lecture notes into a cheaply printed textbook and , by requiring it as an introductory text and getting a few colleagues (former students?) at other schools to do likewise, and thereby set himself up with a lucrative income. I suppose none of this applies today in the age of electronically transmitted information, or does it?

  2. Economists talk about flows and rates, and the utility the price and demand, etc. But do economists actually think about how poor people work so hard. Surely they see them working in the restaurants, the mini cabs, etc.

    A certain internet company can deliver anything every day of the week within 24 hours notice, or even less, and the service looks good. But the delivery service seems to be done by ordinary guys fitting it in somehow. They use their own car and have no uniform. It looks like a very low cost. And it undercuts the local postmen, who have done their job for years.

    For the poor it is like a pressure cooker, work, work, work. While those that earn better money, like economists, get to eat well when they go out. Their wages are so good when compared.

    The Right lack consideration and empathy because they say, well, learn to be an economist then, or get a degree? Or start your own business? But someone has to be at the bottom where it will be like a pressure cooker for them. And if everyone had a Phd there would still be people at the bottom flipping burghers. It’s all relative.

    It is now known that getting a good IQ has more to do about learning and early life experiences, and getting healthy food while young, than about inheritance.

    But even if IQ was purely inherited does that mean that people with a lower intelligence should become serfs and live harsh lives, while everyone else live in luxury? I don’t think so. A wage scale should be set up by society.

    Even with a wage scale people will still have incentive to work hard. They will want to get to the top, and luxury goods will become less expensive. People work hard for status more than anything. Being a top economist brings a lot of status, as well as being a top sportsman.

  3. Elizabeth Burton

    Proving yet again that a little learning is a dangerous thing?