Posted by: Louis Lavelle on November 8, 2011
Last Wednesday, 70 Harvard students walked out of an introductory economics course, citing a bias that they said “perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society.”
The walkout, first reported by the Harvard Crimson, was the subject of an open letter to the professor who teaches the course, Greg Mankiw. The letter, which appeared in the Harvard Political Review, says Mankiw’s class espouses a “limited” view of economics—heavy on Adam Smith, less so on Keynesian theory—that “fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics.” It read in part:
“We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy [Wall Street] movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice.”
Mankiw, who served as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the second Bush Administration and is currently an adviser to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, declined to comment for the Crimson article, but discussed the issues raised by the protest with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. Mankiw, who in his blog describes himself as “comfortably in the top 1 percent,” told NPR that he lectures frequently on the growing wealth gap.
“There’s no question that the gap between rich and poor has risen substantially. It’s been a long term trend since the 1970s, with pretty steady increases,” he said. “And I lecture about this every year. It was a pure coincidence that I was lecturing on this topic the very day they decided to walk out.”
I find it interesting that this protest took place at Harvard, a preserve of privilege if ever there was one. I was also taken aback at the difference between this expression of solidarity with "the other 99 percent" and the reaction of Wharton students when the Occupy Wall Street protesters showed up on campus last month. The Wharton students chanted "Get a job! Get a job!" while one of them held up a sign that said "Get in our bracket."
The Harvard incident was discussed at some length last week, including a post on the Naked Capitalism blog and by Bloomberg's own Tom Keene on the EconoChat blog. Neither were what one might call sympathetic to the protesters.
But I'm curious to know what everybody here makes of all this. The Harvard protesters, who are undergraduates from multiple disciplines, seem to suggest that by embracing the benefits of unfettered capitalism in the classroom, classes like Mankiw's actually make problems of economic inequality worse--that philosophical arguments have a real-world impact. But you could argue that understanding what professors like Mankiw have to say about capitalism could be the first step toward fixing the system we have now--the Occupy Wall Street movement's stated goal.
Was the walkout a blow for economic reform, or an empty, shortsighted gesture?