What I Learned (and Didn’t Learn) in Econ 100

BY TIM KOECHLIN | July/August 2019

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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In my first semester in college I enrolled in Economics 100: “Economic Principles.” I was interested in understanding poverty, inequality, and other forms of injustice. Why did some of us live in abundance, while most others had so little? Why did my neighbors and I, in Montclair, N.J., enjoy what seemed like effortless prosperity while residents of Newark, N.J.—just a few miles from my home—endured poverty, unemployment, lousy schools, and profoundly limited opportunities?

When I described my interests to a family friend, she said: “Who is rich, who is poor, and why? That’s economics.” So I took an economics course.

Econ 100 was a large class, with 100 or more students. We met in a small auditorium. Professor Richard von Bargan (not his real name), the chair of the economics department, was a portly white guy in in his 50s. He wore a checkered sport coat, a loud tie, and longish sideburns. (In the mid-1970s, for a brief moment, “conservative” characters were invited to take on some slightly wild affectations—sideburns, longish hair, striped and/or colorful dress shirts with oversized collars, and wide, colorful ties. Professor von Bargan brought a few flashes of “the modern look” to class, but no one was fooled.) During his lectures, Professor von Bargan paced back and forth, from one end of the black board to the other, with a piece of chalk in his right hand. He would occasionally pause for a moment and look out at us to emphasize a point. In profile, he looked a little bit like Alfred Hitchcock.

I was struck by two things on the first day of class, and throughout the semester. First, the premise of Professor von Bargan’s course was that capitalism—which he called the “market system”—was magnificent. The focus of the course was to explain the logic and mechanisms by which this system achieved its magic; how it served “consumers” and “households.” In the parlance of economics—and Professor von Bargan—the unfettered market reliably delivered an economy that was “optimal.” This, to say the least, was baffling to me. I’d assumed that the failure of American capitalism was self-evident. To the contrary, Professor von Bargan’s starting point was that it was a smashing success.

Second, I was struck by Professor von Bargan’s smugness. He regularly reported that most people (i.e., non-economists) simply “don’t seem to get it.” His lectures were full of stories about the abundant misunderstandings and misconceptions that “most people” had about the economy. The stories typically started with a foolish pronouncement by a colleague (not an economist), a columnist, or someone he had encountered at a cocktail party. After laying out the economic misperception of the day, Professor von Bargan would pause for dramatic effect and then, the reveal: “What my colleague (or neighbor) fails to understand is ... .” Each story was delivered with a tone of mild exasperation. “They” didn’t get it, and they didn’t seem to get that they didn’t get it. Rent control? Bad for tenants. The minimum wage? Bad for workers. Protecting workers from import competition? It’s inefficient—and, in fact, “protectionism” makes the country and its workers poorer. Welfare and other anti-poverty programs? They provide the wrong incentives and, ultimately, undermine the well-being of the poor. Isn’t the market system racist? No! Actually, the market is color blind, and it punishes racist employers! Why are the “world’s poor” so poor? It’s not colonialism, that’s for sure. To the contrary, “we” have done our best to help. They ought to emulate us, rather than blame us for their backward economic policies, and their sadly stagnant economies. But, alas, they fail to understand.

Forty years later, I remain perplexed by the project of the discipline of economics. I understand Professor von Bargan’s story much better now, and I learned some useful things in that class—things that still remain fundamental to my understanding of the economy. But the piece of information that made the biggest impression was the message that the professor hammered home on day one—the “Market System” is undoubtedly the best that we can do. Economic “failures” generally come from the failure of policymakers to recognize this truth. And it turns out that lots of economists—not just Professor von Bargan—are smug and, by default, exasperated by the ignorance and imprecision of non-economists. For goodness sake, leave policy to the experts. (More than this—leave policy of all kinds to the economists! An outbreak of violence? Call a game theorist! Failing schools? Rising crime rates? Get the incentives right! Economists have a powerful impulse to colonize other disciplines.) And, if you want to get economics, don’t rely on your instincts. Your instincts are often wrong and so, too, are the instincts of your political science professors. Take economics and learn how to actually think.

I also learned a lot of other stuff—some of it nonsense, and some of it vaguely useful, but far from essential. But more importantly, lots of stuff didn’t come up. Lots of important questions were dismissed, obscured, and/or delegitimized: Aren’t unrestrained multinational corporations dangerous? Doesn’t trade hurt workers? Isn’t colonialism foundational to 20th-century capitalism, or, at least, worth a moment’s attention? Isn’t capitalism rooted in exploitation? Isn’t the wealth of the world’s rich countries somehow related to the poverty of poor countries? Isn’t capitalism racist? Sexist? Isn’t foreign policy influenced by the agenda of capital? Aren’t people sometimes “irrational”? Aren’t people unselfish sometimes? Why do we evaluate our society by its “efficiency”—rather than equality, sustainability, the quality of our relationships and/or communities, or fun? Is more really better? In what ways might the pursuit of profit, efficiency, and/or economic growth undermine, contradict, and erase projects, values, and concerns that might make us, and our lives, better? Doesn’t coming of age and living in a system that rewards selfishness constrain, contort, and diminish what we can be? These and other potentially deep questions were dismissed—or, again, they never came up. If you got it—if you thought like an economist—you’d get that we didn’t need to address that question. The list of important questions from which economics averts our eyes is very long. And thus lots of talented, creative thinkers—interested in social justice, fairness, racial, gender, and environmental inequality, and the ways in which work might make our lives meaningful (or not)—were turned off, and swore they’d never take another economics class. No wonder.

Professor von Bargan didn’t get most of this. He didn’t think about the silences and evasions and erasures in economics. He couldn’t see them. And he treated questions that began to get at the profound limits of economics as if they were evidence of ignorance or “intellectual laziness.” When he was asked: “Are people simply selfish? Is that really a comprehensive theory of human behavior?” He could have said: “Interesting question. Maybe not! Probably not. But for now, this assumption makes it easier to grasp the mechanics of our model.” But instead he rolled his eyes and said, “What you fail to understand ... .” A smug, exasperated dismissal. A third message—which I got only a bit later—is this: Economics is serious. Economics is a science. Other social sciences are soft and unscientific—armchair theorizing. Economics is about modeling. It’s about data. It’s about math. Indeed, if there is no math, it isn’t really economics. So, if you want a seat at the table, calculus, geometry, linear algebra, and econometrics are prerequisites. Arguments that are not “rigorous” (that is, not expressed as a mathematical model) are dismissed as “hand-waving,” or—worse, perhaps—sociology. My students often tell me that they haven’t taken economics because they aren’t good at math. Given the way economics is done—the way it is taught—I’m not surprised. But this is a ridiculous and appalling state of affairs—and a loss. Lots of students are interested in a critical understanding of inequality, poverty, trade, globalization, racial inequality, and environmental degradation. But, apparently, nothing meaningful can be said about any of these matters until you do some math. Economics can’t be taught without problem sets.

Professor von Bargan was an extreme character, perhaps. And mainstream economics has changed in some important (and encouraging) ways over the 40 years since I took Econ 100. But I am sure that many (too many) current intro to economics students can relate to my experience of Econ 100.

There is, of course, a long, rich, and magnificent history of alternatives to this story. And many scholars, teachers, and students of economics have criticized and pushed back against this mainstream narrative and curriculum. Indeed, Dollars & Sense—to cite just one of many important examples—has provided a powerful and effective counter-narrative to the hegemonic mainstream story for years, an effort that has validated the legitimate skepticism of countless students. But, alas, 40 years after I took Econ 100, the narrative presented in mainstream textbooks is not very different from the story I heard from Professor von Bargan. It celebrates the “efficiency” of the “market system,” its focus is absurdly narrow, and its smug dismissal of important questions continues.

As a consequence, too many students leave Econ 100 believing that capitalism is demonstrably the best we can hope for. Many potentially great multidisciplinary economists flee the field, or never consider it, and economics disproportionately attracts (and is reproduced by) people who like to model things, and don’t find the deafening silences in the discipline all that problematic. And too many intro to economics students don’t hear lots of important stories about economic democracy, the limits of growth, the legacy of colonialism, or the relationships among capitalism, racism, and sexism. And when these silences are noted by students, too often, they aren’t taken seriously by their Econ 100 professors. Those silences speak very loudly.

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