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A specific plan to change economics textbooks

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By Tim Thornton

[Tim Thornton is in the Economic Theory and Education Program, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University]

Abstract: In this brief article a particular plan to change economics textbooks is put forward. It is assumed that the reader has at least some affinity with the view that the economics curriculum is in need of reform. For example, they might wish to see greater pluralism, more interdisciplinarity, or increased incorporation of recent advances in economic thought. The structure of the analysis is as follows. First, it is argued that textbooks are one of the most important factors in how the discipline of economics reproduces itself. Second, the difficulties of changing textbooks are examined. This section includes scrutiny of recent analysis that concludes that whilst economics textbooks should change, they don’t change and won’t change. Section three outlines the ‘minimum ask’ campaign, a global collective push that involves both academics and students. The campaign is ambitious in some respects, yet is essentially modest in that it asks very little of any particular participant.

  1. The importance of economics textbooks

Economics textbooks are central to how the discipline of economics reproduces itself and how it convinces society of the legitimacy of its conclusions. Whilst writing a textbook does not have the glamour or esteem of producing highly cited research, it is perhaps at least as important. As Paul Samuelson, the father of the modern economics textbook remarked,“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treatises – as long as I can write its textbooks” (Samuelson cited in Skousen 1997, p. 150). Relatedly, Lamm (1993) points out that the yearly sales of the leading economics textbooks dwarf the lifetime sales of many of the ground breaking books in economics such as Keynes’ General Theory. Furthermore, King (1995) argues that the inability of the first generation of Post Keynesians to produce a satisfactory textbook was a critical factor in allowing neoclassical-synthesis Keynesianism to become dominant.

Clearly, textbooks matter. Indeed, it is quite hard to imagine how there will be major change in economics until there are major changes in economics textbooks. However, we can frame this same point in more positive terms by saying it is quite easy to imagine how changing the textbooks used in economics could precipitate major change in economics. What then are the prospects of change?

  1. The difficulties of changing textbooks

Usurping the currently dominant economics texts has proven to be difficult thus far and it appears unlikely that the problem will resolve itself. Why is this? As Colander (2015) points out, the content and presentation of the standard textbook has become intricately connected to the existing institutional structure within economics departments and that economists at the ground level face significant incentives to persist with existing textbooks. This is so even when an economist might know that these textbooks are problematic. Indeed, economic textbook authors knowingly include content they know to be problematic for fear of their book being seen as too different and thus not selling in sufficient quantities (Colander 2004). In summary, there is ongoing supply and demand for a product that is recognised as being faulty:

Economists … consistently choose textbooks that teach material that they know is false and/or completely out of date…there’s still this incredible tension in what we teach. I am so displeased at the way undergraduate and even graduate economics is taught…If this were physics or astronomy, when they get new ideas at the forefront they immediately teach them, but in economics they teach the stuff that even thirty years ago people did not believe…So I think there is a real tension and that there will be one for a long time (Gintis 2004 pp.92-93).

One response to this situation is to conclude that whilst economics textbooks should change, they don’t and won’t, change (Colander 2015). Such an essentially defeatist stance is unwarranted. Indeed, given that beliefs about social systems are working parts of those systems (Stretton 1999), it may be actively unhelpful to argue that, barring ‘the stars aligning just right’, things cannot change. As Nelson Mandela once remarked in relation to a far more substantial challenge ‘it always seems impossible until it is done’. How then could it be done?

A plan of action: ‘the minimum ask’

For several decades there have been rising calls for the reform of economics and in particular, economics teaching. Furthermore, there has been a proliferation of student and academic organisations and entities to promote change within economics. A short (but far from complete) list includes:

  • The World Economics Association
  • Rethinking Economics
  • The Institute for New Economic Thinking
  • The International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics
  • The Association of Heterodox Economics
  • The International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics
  • The Union for Radical Political Economists

Such organisations do highly valuable work. However, there has yet to be any joint project or campaign to get these types of reform-orientated organisations working together to achieve a specific end via specific means. In other words, true coordination on specific tasks has not yet occurred. Here then is an opportunity to start a new phase of more collectively organised and tightly focused efforts at change. If successful the approach could potentially be replicated to achieve other improvements in teaching, research and policy.

The campaign advocated here is, in its essence, simple: mobilise as many reform-minded students and academics as possible to approach their own university and request that they consider an alternative (and superior) textbook. The campaign is called ‘The Minimum Ask.’ The title captures the fact that what is being asked is the very minimum that can be asked of economics departments given there has been sustained criticism of what is taught. The title of ‘The Minimum Ask’ also captures that what is being asked of participants in the campaign is very minimal: choosing and then suggesting a particular textbook. Let us now consider the specific details of the campaign.

What textbook(s) to advocate?

Participating individuals are free choose the text they themselves think is best. Given that a central objective of the campaign is to promote pluralism in economics this approach makes sense. However, to alert participants to some of the more obvious options, participating organizations are encouraged to draw up their own short-list of textbooks for their members to choose from. There are several organisations that have already produced lists of alternative introductory textbooks. These textbooks range from the reformist to the revolutionary:

There are doubtless other lists and participants may already have determined what the text (or list texts) they want to suggest to their own university.

How to make the approach?

Participants can approach the relevant introductory economics teacher in any way they feel comfortable. This could take the modest and minimal form of simply spending two minutes to send a brief email to the relevant academic with a link to a particular textbook or textbooks. The approach could also take the form of a phone call or a direct meeting. One might make the approach individually or in collaboration with others. One may simply float the idea or one may engage more concerted process of discussion and persuasion. If the decision on textbooks is taken at the department level it might involve writing a memo, attending a meeting or submitting an agenda item. Participants should do whatever they think makes best sense for them in their particular context.

Making a considered and professional textbook suggestion to an academic should not normally have any risks associated with it. However, it pays to be careful and canny when seeking reform. Students who are already stuck with a particular set text in a particular semester can obviously afford to wait till the end of semester when they have their end of semester results before making the approach. They may also wish to make the suggestion as a group rather than as single individuals. Similarly, fixed term staff and contract staff may wish to think about when, how, with whom and to whom they make their suggestions.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation is desirable, for if the campaign is successful, and everybody knows it is successful, it would create a strong momentum for further collective actions of this type (for example, changing intermediate or postgraduate textbooks or changing institutional structures around journal rankings). Momentum is obviously critical so the most vulnerable stage for the whole initiative is the launch of the plan (i.e. right now), so if you are in any sympathetic to the cause please get on board. The more people that get on board, the more likely it is that others will then get on board.

To let the world know that people are getting on board, participants are encouraged to fill in a brief form at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VN3338Y in order to report back on what the response was to their suggestion. Participants can fill out as much or as little of the form as they wish. They are not asked to reveal their own identity or the name of their university. The progress of the campaign can be monitored at http://home.exetel.com.au/minimumask

If you have any questions or advice you would like to offer in regards to this campaign please feel free to email me at minimumask@exemail.com.au What are the prospects for success? Don’t know. Let us see what can be done.

Disclosure: Tim Thornton is not currently himself a textbook author, but he has friendships and affiliations with several textbook authors, including his colleagues at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. The idea of a ‘minimum ask’ campaign was conceived in his PhD thesis (Thornton 2013) and developed in a book based on this PhD (Thornton 2017)

References

Colander, D (2015) ‘Why Economics Textbooks Should, but Don’t, and Won’t, Change,’ European Journal of Economics and Economic Policies: Intervention, vol. 12, issue. 2, pp. 229-35.

Colander, D C (2004) ‘Caveat Lector: Living with the 15 Per Cent Rule’, Australasian Journal of Economics Education, vol. 1, issue. 1.

Gintis, H (2004) ‘Herbit Gintis’, in D C Colander, J B Rosser & R P F Holt (eds), The Changing Face of Economics: Conversations with Cutting Edge Economists, Place Pubished, University of Michigan Press, pp. 77-106.

King, J E 1995, The First Post Keynesian: Joan Robinson’s Essays in the Theory of Employment (1937), Discussion Paper, School of Economics and Commerce, La Trobe University, Bundoora.

Lamm, D S (1993) ‘Economics and the Common Reader’, in D Colander & A W Coates (eds), The Spread of Economic Ideas, Place Pubished, Cambridge University Press, pp. 95-106.

Skousen, M (1997) ‘The Perseverance of Paul Samuelson’s Economics’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 11, issue. 2, pp. 137-52.

Stretton, H (1999) Economics: A New Introduction, Sydney, UNSW Press.

Thornton, T B (2013) ‘The Possibility of a Pluralist Economics Curriculum in Australian Universities: Historical Forces and Contemporary Strategies’, PhD thesis, La Trobe University.

—— (2017) From Economics to Political Economy: The Promise, Problems and Solutions of Pluralist Economics, London, Routledge.

From: pp.7-9 of WEA Commentaries 8(5), December 2018
http://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/Issue8-5.pdf

Download WEA commentaries Volume 8, Issue No. 5, December 2018 ›

10 responses

  • David COLANDER says:

    Tim’s interpretation of my arguments about textbooks is a bit different than mine. My interpretation involves a two-prong approach–one how to deal with the short run, and the other–how to deal with the long run. Textbooks will change–but that, in my view, that change will involve two different paths. One (the short run path) will involve an evolutionary path–where the same material is presented, but presented with a more open interpretation and acceptance of multiple views. My text follows that approach–it is what some have called inside the mainstream heterodox. It incorporates heterodox views into the mainstream presentation. That’s why I include at the end of each chapter of my Principles book questions from alternative perspectives, and have discussions throughout the text about the nuance of applying models to real world situation and the ethical and normative component of economic policy. Because it necessarily involves normative judgments, it cannot be scientific, but I, following J.S. Mill and J.N. Keynes place it in a separate category–the art of economics. Thus, my book is quite different than most of the other top mainstream books–even while it covers the same standard mainstream ideas. To see the difference between my views and Greg Mankiw’s see my “Tools, not Rules Are We Teaching the Wrong Principles of Economics” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/eej.2015.57 and Greg’s response. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/eej.2015.58

    The other long-run approach is a revolution and sometime in the future that will occur in economics–it will integrate data analysis into the teaching of principles in a fundamentally different way than do existing textbooks and will involve a restructuing of the entire economic major.. But in my view, that revolution is at least 10 to 20 years in the future.

  • C. T. Kurien says:

    May I suggest that you take a look at the approach indicated in ECONOMICS OF REAL LIFE reviewed by Stuart Birks in World Economic Association Newsletter, May 2018?

    C. T. Kurien

  • David Harold Chester says:

    In regard to the texts on macroeconomics there is much disagreement and confusion in the explanations previously given. This is mostly because the writes are humanists who think by unsing intuition and political bias and not in a scientific way.

    Were this criticism to not be backed with something better it would be hypocritical. But there is something better and its for free! The following explanations is all about what has now been done:

    Making Macroeconomics a More Exact Science

    Today macroeconomics is generally treated as an inexact topic within the humanities, because at a first look it appears to be a very complex and easily confused matter. But this attitude does not give it fair justice–we should be trying to find a good way to approach and examine the subject that avoids these problems of complexity and confusion. Suppose we ask ourselves the question: “how many different KINDS of financial transactions happen within our society?”, then the answer is that only a limited number of them is possible.

    Although our society comprises of many millions of participants, to answer this question properly we should be ready to take aggregates of all the various kinds of activities (no matter who performs them) and then idealize them so that they fall into more general terms for the expression of the different specific social functions. Here, each activity is found to apply between its particular pair of entities—with the expression of its individual properties. Then the author finds that to cover the whole social system of a country (excluding foreign trade), it takes only 19 mutual flows of money for the purchase and payment of/for goods, services, access rights, taxes, credit, investments, valuable legal documents, etc .
    The analysis that led to this unexpected result was performed by the author and it may be found in his working paper (on the internet) as SSRN 2865571 “Einstein’s Criterion Applied to Logical Macroeconomics Modeling”. In this model there are these 19 double flows of money verses goods etc. They are found to pass between only 6 kinds of role-playing entities. (There are of course a number of configurations that are possible for this type of simplification, but if one tries to eliminate all the unnecessary complications and sticks to the basic activities, these particular quantities are the most concise result of this simple yet satisfactory and comprehensive analysis.)

    Surprisingly, past representation of our social system by this kind of an interpretations model has not been properly examined nor presented before. Other partial versions have been previously modeled, but they are inexact due to their being over-simplified, (or in the case of econometrics, too complicated) and this is one reason for their earlier non-scientific confusion and failure for obtaining a good understanding about the way the whole system works. The model being described here is unique in being the first to include, along with some additional aspects, all the 3 factors of production of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” book of 1776. The three factors of production are Land, Labor and Capital and along with their returns of Ground-Rent, Wages and Interest/Dividends respectively, which are all parts included in this presentation.

    A diagram of this model is in my paper and also may be viewed in Wikipedia, Commons, Macroeconomics as: DiagFuncMacroSyst.pdf , which needs enlargement to get all of the aspects included in one view–for a mention of the related teaching process (see my short working SSRN 2600103 “A Mechanical Model for Teaching Macroeconomics”). With this model the various parts and activities of the Big Picture of our social system can be properly identified and defined. Subsequently by analysis, the way the system works can then be properly calculated and illustrated.

    It is done by the mathematics and logic that was devised by Nobel Laureate Wassiley W. Leontief, when he invented and introduced the important “Input-Output” matrix methodology (but he applied it to the production sector only). This short-hand method of modeling the whole system replaces the above-mentioned block-and-flow diagram. It enables one to really get to grips with what is going-on in our social system. It is found that it is the topology of the matrix which actually provides the key to this. The math is not hard and is suitable for high school students who have been shown the basic properties of square matrices.

    Developments of these ideas about making our subject more truly scientific (thereby avoiding the past pseudo-science being taught at universities), may be found in my recent book: “Consequential Macroeconomics—Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works”. Please write to me at chesterdh@hotmail.com for a free e-copy of this 310 page book and for additional information.

  • wolfram elsner says:

    See my answer on Colander (2015) on HOW textbooks CAN be changed and the example presented:

    W. Elsner, T. Heinrich, H. Schwardt, The Microeconomics of Complex Economies. Evolutionary, Institutional, Neoclassical and Complexity Perspectives, Elsevier/Academic Press (!!!) 2015,

    as presented in

    S. Decker, W. Elsner, S. Flechtner (Eds.), Advancing Pluralism in Teaching Economics. International Perspectives on a Textbook Science, Routledge 2018.

  • Roy Langston says:

    Textbook authors are notorious rent seekers, and the authors of economics textbooks are uniquely positioned to contrive and disseminate plausible-sounding rationalizations for their rent seeking. Perhaps that is why most recent economics textbooks — Mankiw’s are good examples — go out of their way to either studiously avoid mentioning, or offer fallacious and disingenuous justifications for, rent seeking behavior through not only IP monopoly privilege but landowner privilege and even private banks’ money creation privilege. There cannot be an honest economics textbook whose author does not place it in the public domain from the outset, and any economics course that uses a textbook under copyright is probably just an exercise in pro-rentier propaganda.

  • Ken Blawatt says:

    HI there
    You all might want to check out the text ‘Marconomics: Defining Economics through Social Science and Consumer Behavior” an Emerald Publication, 2016.
    It argues for a new direction to economic thinking and research…calling into play the marketing discipline and economics combined.
    Ken BLawatt

  • Manfred Nitsch says:

    There are a lot of economics textbooks in other languages. Don’t forget the publishers who could translate and publish a selected few.
    And a second recommendation for the campaign: Insist on teacher-training careers in every Business and Economics Department! Somebody would have to be responsible for a curriculum and a canon about what the public and the pupil in secondary school, the apprentice in the professional banking school, the elite-prone grammar school alumnus, destined for service in big Business, ministries and ambassies, what they should know about the economy and what kind of theories and arguments they should believe and hold up against populism and exaggerated indvidualism.

  • Manfred Nitsch says:

    Don’t forget to envolve the publishers! There are economics textbooks in other languages, which are broader-minded and less anglo-saxon Mainstream_only and which could be translated – and sold! – whenn promoted among our autism_prone fellow economists. My second advice: let business and other teacher-training become mandatory in every Department of Business and Economics so that somebody there has to organize a curriculum and a canon for what the public and what children, apprentices in banks and insurance companies, grammar school elite_candidates in ministries and embassies should know about the economy – and the economists, who are about to tell them a lot of fake theoretical model “truths”. Manfred Nitsch

  • Marc Batko says:

    Trump diverts attention from stagnating wages and from corporations shifting profits to tax havens and speculating. In 2018, corporations spent more than $1 trillion in stock-buybacks – as if ethics were solved by markets and financial markets were efficient. Nothing to see here!

  • Larry Kazdan says:

    William Mitchell is Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

    Modern Monetary Theory and Practice: an Introductory Text
    http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?page_id=33139

    The first version of our MMT textbook – Modern Monetary Theory and Practice: an Introductory Text – was published on March 10, 2016 and is authored by Bill Mitchell, Randy Wray and Martin Watts.

    By way of explanation, this edition contains 15 Chapters and is designed as an introductory textbook for university-level macroeconomics students.

    It is based on the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and includes the following detailed chapters:

    Chapter 1: Introduction
    Chapter 2: How to Think and Do Macroeconomics
    Chapter 3: A Brief Overview of the Economic History and the Rise of Capitalism
    Chapter 4: The System of National Income and Product Accounts
    Chapter 5: Sectoral Accounting and the Flow of Funds
    Chapter 6: Introduction to Sovereign Currency: The Government and its Money
    Chapter 7: The Real Expenditure Model
    Chapter 8: Introduction to Aggregate Supply
    Chapter 9: Labour Market Concepts and Measurement
    Chapter 10: Money and Banking
    Chapter 11: Unemployment and Inflation
    Chapter 12: Full Employment Policy
    Chapter 13: Introduction to Monetary and Fiscal Policy Operations
    Chapter 14: Fiscal Policy in Sovereign nations
    Chapter 15: Monetary Policy in Sovereign Nations

    It is intended as an introductory course in macroeconomics and the narrative is accessible to students of all backgrounds. All mathematical and advanced material appears in separate Appendices.

    A Kindle version will be available.

    Note: We are soon to finalise a sister edition, which will cover both the introductory and intermediate years of university-level macroeconomics (first and second years of study).

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