Greg Mankiw And Empirics

Greg Mankiw wonders if teaching students empirics is feasible and answers in negative:

Noah Smith says introductory economics needs to be more empirical. I understand his argument, and have some sympathy with it, but I wonder if the substantial change he seems to be proposing is practical. Economists usually do empirical work with statistical tools that most college freshmen have not yet learned.

We teachers of introductory economics can and should explain where and why economists disagree. That is part of helping students develop their critical thinking skills. But I doubt students are in a position to try to evaluate the competing empirical work that shapes the differing views.

In the end, introductory economics is just that: an introduction to the economist’s way of thinking. That means giving students basic concepts–comparative advantage, supply and demand, market efficiency and market failure–that will make them more perceptive readers of the newspaper.

The failure to teach empirics to students and how it distorts their vision was well understood by Wynne Godley. In a 1993 article Time, Increasing Returns And Institutions In Macroeconomics, in S. Biasco, A. Roncaglia and M. Salvati (eds.), Market and Institutions in Economic Development: Essays in Honour of Paolo Sylos Labini, (New York: St. Martins Press), pp. 59-82 he wrote:

… But my objection goes beyond skepticism that the world we live in is being described realistically. My additional concern is that the NCP [neoclassical paradigm] is prejudicial with regard to the understanding of some of the most important processes going on in the world today. Thus in the ‘classical’ version of the NCP real output is determined by supply side alone; fiscal policy is entirely impotent and the government can only affect anything by changing the money supply; even then all it can do is affect the price level. The idea that fiscal policy is impotent, which seems to be based entirely on this model, has been extremely influential in contemporary political discussion; it is not just a provisional result suitable for a week or two in an elementary class.

Then the abolition of time prejudices the perception of inflation as an evolutionary process; the equilibria generate ‘explanations’ of price levels not changes, and theories of inflation cannot be convincingly coaxed forth. As if this were not enough, the whole construction leads by virtue of its axioms to the conclusion that wage and price flexibility, in combination with free trade, will generate full employment and convergence, if not equalisation, of living standards between countries and between regions within countries. In sum, while the absence of processes occurring in historical time means that the NCP does not encourage students to go and look up figures in books, if and when they are forced to do so their vision is likely to have been for ever distorted.

[emphasis added]

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