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The WEA Textbook Commentaries Project

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A collection of commentaries on chapters in the 7th edition of Mankiw’s introductory texts was uploaded to the WEA website some years ago for the Textbook Commentaries Project. They were written by Stuart Birks and focussed on the macroeconomic content. Additional commentaries by Rod Hill are now being uploaded, focussing on the microeconomics chapters of his 9th American edition. The aim is to help students to critically assess their course material.

50 years ago relatively few economics students specialised in technical representations of the economy as covered in degree courses in mathematical economics and econometrics. The vast majority took a far more descriptive approach, looking closely at the real world. I think that the balance then was just about right. Subsequent developments with computers and electronic data have enabled major changes in focus. Incentive structures have also changed, altering the nature of economics research and resulting in particular in a heavy focus on models and econometric estimation. In many situations models based on abstract theory, the available data and narrow functional forms have little relationship to the real world phenomena they are claimed to represent. At the very least, thought has to be given to additional aspects overlooked in the models.

There have been developments in the diversity of perspectives taken in economics. However, there have also been other developments which have resulted in a severe narrowing of the approach. Among these has been the marked reduction in academic positions focusing on political economy and the history of economic thought. However one of the most notable developments may have been the watering down of introductory textbooks and the dominance of a simplified perspective coming out of the US. Cuts in university economics education in some countries have resulted in a reduction from two full-year introductory courses to just one single semester paper. This, combined with multi-choice questions and a heavy pro-market focus, resulted in a perspective radically different from that presented in Europe 50 years ago. Sadly, the internally consistent logic of the theoretical base also disappeared, along with discussion of the simplifications in and alternatives to the assumptions and defined variables (think of the current universality of GDP and its misuse in contrast to the detailed discussion and qualifications formerly presented with national accounting aggregates). There also appears to be a marked reduction in coverage of the process of model building, including explanations of the increased complexity and perhaps realism associated with relaxation of assumptions. In fact, frequently the underlying assumptions in a model are not even listed. An understanding of these concerns clearly signals caution in the use and interpretation of results. As for econometrics, the significance of such aspects as additive separability, proxy variables, fixed underlying structures, and causality among many others seemed to be given much less weight than tests of statistical significance, for example.

As Rod Hill puts it, the purpose of these Commentaries is to assist students to think critically about what they are reading. This isn’t easy to do on one’s own. Students first must master the ideas being presented, ideas moreover which appear to have the stamp of approval of the instructor as well as the economics profession. But, particularly at large universities, the instructor may have had no choice about what text to use. And the economics profession is far from monolithic, as the existence of the World Economics Association demonstrates. As well, a variety of ‘nonstandard’ principles texts exist, and their share of the market may well be slowly growing. Much of the content in the Commentaries apply not just to Mankiw’s text but also to most of the ‘standard’ or ‘mainstream’ texts in use today, not only in the United States but in many other countries. Many of these texts, including Mankiw’s, have editions published in other English-speaking countries and versions translated into other languages. Most of the points raised in the Commentaries have been set out, often in more detail, in other critiques of the way that microeconomics principles are presented to students. Some of these critiques are listed below.

It is up to the current generation of economists to set their own course. As those on the right of the political spectrum are likely to contend, however, people respond to incentives. Recognised experts are those who have received the most rewards. Let’s hope that they are being judged in a desirable way.

Additional Reading

Birks, Stuart (2015) 40 Critical Pointers for Students of Economics, World Economics Association Book Series at

Hill, Rod, and Tony Myatt (2022) The Microeconomics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker’s Guide, second edition, London: Bloomsbury.

Komlos, John (2019) Foundations of Real-World Economics: What Every Economics Student Needs to Know, second edition, New York: Routledge.

and for more advanced undergraduate students:

Varoufakis, Yanis (1998) Foundations of Economics: A Beginner’s Companion, London: Routledge.

For a more extensive list, see: Alternative texts | World Economics Association

From: p.15 of WEA Commentaries 12(2), August 2022

Download WEA commentaries Volume 12, Issue No. 2, August 2022 ›

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