Thursday, June 6, 2019

CORE and Periphery in the Reform of Econ 101

Thanks to Greg Mankiw, I’ve seen a preview of the piece by Sam Bowles and Wendy Carlin that will be published in a forthcoming Journal of Economic Literature.  It’s apparently part of a roundtable on the teaching of introductory economics, and not surprisingly Bowles and Carlin focus on the freely downloadable CORE text produced with support from the Institute for New Economic Thinking.  The starting point of their article is the revolution in economic textbooks inaugurated by Paul Samuelson in 1948, when Keynesian analysis and policy became the centerpiece of what every introductory student was expected to know.  Today, they say, we need a new revolution, since the introductory texts are equally out of date and fail to grapple with the issues students rightly care about.

Much of the article is taken up with a detailed comparison of their text to two leading competitors, those of Mankiw and Krugman/Wells.  They use frequency of word use to contrast the relative importance of different topics and describe in a more general way the key benchmark models that structure the alternative narratives.  They make the point that major changes in economic theory, such as greater behavioral realism, the relevance of institutions and the role of game theory, are largely absent from the mainstream texts but fundamental to CORE’s.

Of course, I strongly urge everyone one of you who happens to be an economics instructor to check out CORE.  It brings together the thoughts of a number of leading economists on how to make frontier concepts accessible to novices.  It is intellectually stimulating, and the price is right.

I want to suggest one limitation of the CORE initiative, however.  It’s actually congenital: according to the Bowles/Carlin writeup, CORE was born at an NBER meeting in 2013 and evolved through a series of international workshops (sixteen on six continents) and working groups to its present state.  It is clearly the product of a group of internationally prominent economic thinkers and researchers.  It is not the product of economists who have devoted a substantial portion of their career to the study of pedagogy.

CORE addresses one of the two main problems with the introductory economics course, that the intellectual substance is largely past its sell date and does not lend itself to the controversies most students will face in the years ahead.  Good!  But the other problem is that economics is typically taught in a manner that is both authoritarian and ineffective—too much indoctrination and not enough learning.  While it is important to crusade for better conceptual frameworks, it’s equally urgent to challenge doctrinaire economics instruction at the level of classroom dynamics.  In my view, while CORE can be adapted to some extent to an improved pedagogy, it is not more conducive in that respect than the mainstream texts it wants to supplant.

What’s the problem, exactly?  Overreliance on lecturing and minimal scope for critical thinking.  Let’s begin with the consecration of talk-and-chalk, or its current electronic update, as the only worthy mode of economics instruction.  Students are expected to listen attentively, take thorough notes and demonstrate their retention/comprehension on problem sets and exams.  No doubt a few of them take well to this and succeed magnificently; they’re the pool from which future economics instructors will be drawn.  Most do not.  Rather, they thrive on some form of active learning, which includes case studies, workshops and projects.  There is a vast literature that demonstrates the superiority of active learning across a range of disciplines, and economics is not an exception.

One reason lecturing has become so embedded in economics teaching is the emphasis on formal modeling, even at the introductory level.  The difference between Econ 101 and the specialized courses for advanced majors and grad students is not the share of time devoted to models but only their complexity.  CORE apparently prides itself in having more analytical diagrams relative to verbal description than either Mankiw or Krugman/Wells, but it is exactly this approach that requires instructors to spend hour after hour in lecture trying to make the models digestible for newbies.  In pointing this out, I am not damning all use of formal models—hardly.  Economics without the discipline of thinking in models is vacuous.  But there is a lot more to economic reasoning than cranking through models, and by foregrounding these aspects the need for lecturing can be reduced.  Much intuition, for instance, can be built up inductively through careful examination of cases rather than handed down as a tight construction of assumptions and proofs.  Similarly, empiricism can and should be brought in through project work—actually digging up and thinking about economic data—than just plugging numbers into toy models.  I should mention in this context that this year, finally, I managed to flip my classroom, posting lectures as streaming videos that students could view at home, while devoting class time, as much as possible, to workshops.  It was just a start, but even these baby steps were superior to the old, pre-flip approach.

The other problem, authoritarianism, is related to the first.  Models have right and wrong forms of understanding, and to the extent the class is taking up with figuring out how the models work and can be applied, thinking operates within a right/wrong framework.  True critical thinking is about limits and tradeoffs: how a model that might work in one situation would be misleading in another, or how the simplifications embedded in a model may help you see one thing but blind you to something else.  A critical thinking approach to economics has to employ fewer models and give more attention to context, assumptions and purposes.  In the real world people have to make judgment calls about what forces at work in a situation are the most consequential—which stories to bring to bear, and which ones to tuck away for another time.  It is that capacity for judgment that critical thinking activities are intended to build, and a useful text would be one that modeled the process in an open-ended way.  The conventional economics texts don’t do this, and CORE doesn’t either.

So for me, CORE bats one out of two.  That’s way ahead of zero but not yet what we need.  I hope its proponents can recognize that introductory economics has a pedagogy problem as well as a theory problem, and that their 2.0 will take strides in that direction.


Clint Ballinger said...

The entire pathway into Econ needs to be re-thought. Starting with supply and demand diagrams and working forwards leads (not incidentally) to neoclassical thought.
The basics of supply and demand are intuitive and deserve little attention. The organizational needs of the private sector and public sector are what matter in economics, and are the best intro to meaningful economics. I have written a short intro book using this approach. Everything a first semester Econ student should learn is included, with further econ delving into the details of good fiscal policy.
1000 Castaways: Fundamentals of Economics said...


You should understand that you are not the only one to have a new alternative intro econ textbook. Peter D. does so also, although he is not pushing it specifically in this post.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Economics textbooks ― tombstones at the Flat-Earth-Cemetery
Links on Peter Dorman on ‘CORE and Periphery in the Reform of Econ 101’

CORE: more lipstick on the dead economics pig

To this day, economists have produced NOT ONE textbook that satisfies scientific standards

Refuting MMT’s new Macroeconomics Textbook

Economists have no brain

False on principle

Where economics went wrong (II)

The father of modern economics and his imbecile kids

For details of the big picture see cross-references Econ 101/Old Curriculum/New Curriculum

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Owen Paine said...

And yes the core text is a big step
Where's profit carefully discussed
Perhaps instant put to fine a point on
Class based
interests aims and projects

One might not for example
Frame up
The ever wider and deeper socialization of surplus value
As a class aim
Or call real and positive
interest rates exploitation
Or class rents


AXEC / E.K-H said...

Owen Paine

You say “And yes the core text is a big step.”

NO. In the section ‘9.6 Wages, profits, and unemployment in the whole economy’ the determination of macroeconomic profit is provably false. The axiomatically correct macroeconomic Profit Law reads Q=Yd+I−S+(G−T)+(X−M).

Because the foundational concept of economics, i.e. profit, is ill-defined the CORE textbook is scientifically worthless.#1

That the whole thing is not more than proto-scientific garbage, storytelling, gossip, and name-dropping may be gleaned from such references as:

“Arguably the most famous scientific controversy of all time was between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus.

Newton first used calculus methods in a manuscript published in 1666. The methods were used in his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which was published in 1687. He completed his book on calculus, Method of Fluxions, in 1671, but did not publish it until 1736.

Newton’s supporters accused Leibniz of plagiarism in his work on calculus. By the time of his death, his reputation was in decline and he died in poverty. His reputation has subsequently been rebuilt by both mathematicians and philosophers.

Modern historians accept that Newton and Leibniz invented calculus independently, at about the same time. Therefore, to decide whom to name the calculus supplements after, we tossed a coin. Leibniz won.”

Fact is that modern historians have found out that Newton was a fraudster.#2

More exercises in the erection of False-Hero-Monuments can be found in the section Great economists.#3

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 CORE: more lipstick on the dead economics pig

#2 Kollerstrom, N. (2018). The Dark Side of Isaac Newton: Science’s Greatest Fraud? Pen and Sword Books.

#3 For details see cross-references Failed/Fake Scientists

AXEC / E.K-H said...


Are economics professors really that incompetent? Yes!
Comment on Lars Syll on ‘Wren-Lewis vs MMT’

With regard to the ongoing Neoliberalism vs MMT slapstick#1 Lars Syll maintains: “In Wren-Lewis world we don’t need fiscal policy other than when interest rates hit their lower bound (ZLB). In normal times monetary policy suffices. … What Wren-Lewis and other mainstream economists have in mind when they argue this way, is nothing but a version of Say’s law, basically saying that savings have to equal investments and that if the state increases investments, then private investments have to come down (‘crowding out’). As an accounting identity, there is, of course, nothing to say about the law, but as such, it is also totally uninteresting from an economic point of view. What happens when ex-ante savings and investments differ, is that we basically get output adjustments. GDP changes and so makes saving and investments equal ex-post. And this, nota bene, says nothing at all about the success or failure of fiscal policies!”

There is NO such thing as an accounting identity of savings and investments. This erroneous notion is simply due to the fact that economists are too stupid for the elementary mathematics that underlies macroeconomic accounting.#2, #3 Accordingly, neither the Swedish professor, nor Post-Keynesians, nor New Keynesians, nor MMTers, nor Anti-Keynesians have realized it to this day.#4, #5

The scientific incompetence can be traced back to the General Theory: “Income = value of output = consumption + investment. Saving = income − consumption. Therefore saving = investment.” (p. 63)

This two-liner is conceptually and logically defective because Keynes NEVER came to grips with profit.

“His Collected Writings show that he wrestled to solve the Profit Puzzle up till the semi-final versions of his GT but in the end he gave up and discarded the draft chapter dealing with it.” (Tómasson et al.)

Let this sink in, the economist Keynes NEVER understood profit, i.e. the fundamental concept of economics. So, Keynes’ I=S is false and by consequence the multiplier and all I=S/IS-LM models. Instead, Q=I−S is true with Q as macroeconomic profit. The ex-ante/ex-post blather is absolutely beside the point.

Because the profit theory is false the whole analytical superstructure of economics is false. Because economics is proto-scientific garbage, economic policy guidance of both Neoliberals and MMTers is nothing but brain-dead agenda pushing.#6, #7

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

#1 The not so funny MMT vs Neoliberalism slapstick

#2 Wikipedia and the promotion of economists’ idiotism (I)

#3 Wikipedia and the promotion of economists’ idiotism (II)

#4 Keynesians ― terminally stupid or worse?

#5 I is never equal S and even Nick Rowe will eventually grasp it

#6 MMT’s true program

#7 Economics as a cover for agenda pushing