Saturday, September 16, 2006

Nonsense Alleged About Adam Smith in Harvard Crimson

New students attending Harvard University receive all kinds of information from other students on the available courses they can take. Much of it’s amusing, some of it scurrilous, and some a bit OTT in a bid to ‘shock’ the ‘Freshers’ (were students ever different?).

At Harvard the print medium is dominated by Harvard Crimson (daily since 1873), and one item caught my eye on Friday

“Social Analysis: food, money, power (sorry no sex) 14 Sep

“Social Analysis isn’t the sexiest of Core categories, but it ain’t the dreariest either. (Hello, Moral Reasoning.) Besides, many of you won’t have to worry about it to begin with. Social Analysis 10 = Ec 10 = Harvard’s most popular freshman class. For those who foresee a high-flying life in finance—or for those who have no idea what they want to do with their lives and hey, economics could be interesting, right? right?—this is the easiest shopping choice you’ll ever make. One year of Adam Smith and N. Gregory Mankiw (guess which one worked in the Bush administration!) and you’ll be able to justify all manner of evil. It’s practical, painless, and potentially profitable. Best of all, you’ll be done with Social Analysis, right off the first-year bat. BAM!”

Greg Mankiv
is probably one of the most famous of professors in the economics in the US today. His textbooks are the 21st century’s equivalent of the 20th century’s ‘Samuelson’, which were popular in the 1960s when I was a student, in terms of sales, usage and teaching aids. The main difference is that Mankiv has made it a business proposition on a grander scale than Samuelson. Instead of just one text and a workbook, Mankiv has several texts, workbooks and teacher’s aids.

They are also expensive too, and, like Samuelson’s series, they are regularly changed by new editions, which frustrate the second-hand market (the author only gets royalties from new sales). Add in companion web sites and there is a double bind; class exercises change with each new edition.

That is by way of introduction for those (few, I presume) who do not know of the Greg Mankiv phenomenon. Mankiv writes a widely read Blog each day (bookmark it at: which includes his perspective on issues of the day (he states he is Republican party affiliations, though I would not say he was dogmatic or remotely ‘neo-con’), and he has polite spats with Brad Delong’s blog (bookmark it:

Delong's lively Blog is written from a Democratic Party perspective. He is rabidly anti-Bush, with hints of a social democratic tinge, perhaps from his youth; he wants practically the whole Bush cabinet, including the President, to be impeached and he wants all of them to be ‘impeached now!’

From the ‘students’ report on ‘Ec 10’ I think the sentence, ‘One year of Adam Smith and N. Gregory Mankiw (guess which one worked in the Bush administration!) and you’ll be able to justify all manner of evil’, is disturbing. I take it that the view expressed about ‘all manner of evil’ is a student’s twisted perspective and not representative of anything Greg Mankiv teaches.

How students could attend lectures on Adam Smith and read his books, Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments, and come to associate anything about Smith that would label him with anything ‘evil’, let alone ‘all manner of evil’, is so incredible as to defy understanding of the word or the phenomenon of evil. Smith could be wrong about his philosophy and his political economy, but nothing he wrote or taught was ever 'evil'.

The student author must have been attempting provocation by shock, not from considered judgement. If the student believes what he or she has written then that is a great pity (I thought one had to be in the top percentile of the educable population to get into Harvard).

In Greg Mankiv’s Blog today he comments on the Harvard Crimson report but does not mention the contents of the paragraph reported above. He leaves the allegation of ‘all manner of evil’ on the record. I find that strange.

Perhaps Mankiv is indifferent to notoriety about what he teaches, or rather is alleged to teach, coming from patently suspicious sources. Certainly, reading his Blog daily, as I do, I am not persuaded that he does other than teach clearly about economic theory and its history.

Still, I would like to have seen a repudiation of the nonsense published on this occasion in Harvard Crimson.


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