Harvard students walk out of Econ class they say “perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society”

Apparently several Harvard students enrolled in Professor Greg Mankiw’s Economics 10 class walked out yesterday. Following is their open letter to Mankiw.

Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.

As Harvard undergraduates, we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.

A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.

Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics. Many Harvard students do not have the ability to opt out of Economics 10. This class is required for Economics and Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrators, while Social Studies concentrators must take an introductory economics course—and the only other eligible class, Professor Steven Margolin’s class Critical Perspectives on Economics, is only offered every other year (and not this year). Many other students simply desire an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education. Furthermore, Economics 10 makes it difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively as it offers only one heavily skewed perspective rather than a solid grounding on which other courses can expand. Students should not be expected to avoid this class—or the whole discipline of economics—as a method of expressing discontent.

Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.

We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy 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. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously.

And, here’s the NPR interview with Mankiw, who, it’s worth noting, was an advisor to the last President Bush, and is presently assisting the campaign of Mitt Romney. He has written in the past on what he calls, “the politics of envy.”

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  1. Posted November 4, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    It’s good that these students are taking an active hand in what education they are receiving. These students are right in that Harvard produces so many influential people, it is IMPERATIVE that they are equipped with the most relevant education.

    Juan Miguel Ruiz (www.GreenJoyment.com)

  2. Edward
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    I don’t typically think of Harvard students as giving a damn about the 99%. Maybe these are all scholarship kids. Either that, or Harvard students aren’t the elitist sons of bitches that I like to think of them as.

  3. Anonymous Mike
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    It’s just good seeing college students anywhere doing something unrelated to binge drinking and video games. They should be commended for having consciences.

  4. Posted November 4, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink


    I lived in Boston for a time and got to know many Harvard students. My advisor, in fact, is a Harvard grad and many of my graduate student friends here at UMich are Harvard grads.

    While there are many that are assholes at Harvard in the same way that wealthy, white UMich students can be assholes, there are many that are quite concerned about the well-being of the world and go on to do great work.

    Personally, I was surprised, having harbored the same opinions you express here.

    It’s quite a liberal place, actually.

  5. Edward
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    All the Harvard people I know are MBAs, which I’m sure has a great deal to do with my bias.

  6. Meta
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Here’s a letter the good doctor wrote to the New York Times in 2005:

    To the Editor:

    Your chart about the percentage of income earned by the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers was fascinating, but “Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind” failed to draw the obvious conclusions from it.

    The data show that the rich take a rising share of income when the economy is booming, such as during the 1920’s and 1990’s. Their share declines when the economy hits hard times, such as during the Great Depression and the most recent recession.

    The rich took their smallest slice of the economic pie during the 1970’s – a period when productivity growth was low and unemployment and inflation were rising.

    Here’s the lesson: If policy makers’ primary goal is to reduce income inequality, they should put the economy through the wringer. But if they want economic prosperity for all, they should avoid focusing on the politics of envy.

    N. Gregory Mankiw

    As it turns out, he was wrong. The economy tanked, and the rich continue to get richer.

    Politics of envy, my ass.


  7. Interrobang
    Posted November 5, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Damn.

    I only have two questions: Does Mankiw have tenure, and does Harvard do teacher evaluations like every other post-secondary institution I’ve ever encountered? If the answers are no and yes respectively, the walkouts should definitely give him bad reviews; maybe Harvard will bounce his ass. (I guess even if he has tenure, they could safely move him to “emeritus” status and take away his courseload, if too many students — ie. paying customers — say his courses are shit by the truckload. Maybe sometimes the “client” educational model has its advantages after all. Hm.)

  8. Eel
    Posted November 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I listened to the audio yesterday. In it he says that the kids were just stupid. In fact, he says, his planned lecture for the day they had walked out was all about wealth inequality. I don’t buy it for a minute. The guy’s an asshole, but Harvard’s full of them. They like having professors who walk the corridors of power. They don’t care if he’s not a good teacher. The important thing is that he worked for Bush, and will likely have a place in the Romney administration. Lawrence Summers was the President of Harvard and I think everyone agrees that he’s an asshole. Just read what he has to say about female scientists.

  9. Posted November 6, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink


    Mankiw’s class is probably like pretty much all intro econ classes, which really only teach one kind of economics.

    It’s really quite interesting. So much of economics is speculation. Professional economists represent a vast breadth of schools of thought, yet econ as it is presented to beginning students is a hard, consensus driven, unflinching science.

  10. Edward
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard it said before that economics isn’t science.

  11. Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I would disagree, but that’s ok.

  12. Edward
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Maybe I misspoke. It’s a science, but it’s not a hard science. It’s a social science.


  13. Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I would argue that “hard science” (which would be more correctly termed “lab based science”), social science and economics are all sciences. That’s my opinion, as a scientist.

    Just because someone writes an opinion on a webpage, doesn’t make it a fact.

  14. Oliva
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I just listened to the audio, but here’s a link to a 38-minute video of a TVO “Big Ideas” special presentation re. “The Age of Unequals,” http://ww3.tvo.org/video/164247/age-unequals-evening-richard-wilkinson, really worthwhile–re. the rising tide lifting all boats evidence vs. our own present trajectory. For me the most welcome tidbit was being reminded that it’s a sorry and unnecessary point we’re at (Western industrialized nations), where wealth largely determines status, whereas there was a time, not so far back, when wealthy people had lower status than educated people (okay, maybe the words were “aristocratic elite,” oh well)–the best part of the idea that status can be connected to multiple qualities, aside from wealth.

    I do tend toward sentimentality, I know–but it seems like the last part helps explain some of my deep affection for Ypsilanti. A good-hearted person; a creative, energetic person; a wise person; a funny person; a giving person; a person with great hands; a person who cooks brilliantly; a person who manages to get a ton of sunflowers planted in the front lawn of the hospital; many more qualities . . . such things count more than one’s income or wealth.

    P.S. My old boss and dear friend is a proud Harvard grad and is a phenomenal person with a huge heart and unflagging sense of social justice and commitment.

  15. Harvard Reporter
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    More than 350 protesters, many of whom were students, were shut out of Harvard Yard. This comes from The Crimson.

    Around 7 p.m., protesters were met with increased security that would prevent Boston residents who were not Harvard affiliates from entering the Yard.

    “I think it’s absurd. Do we really need eight guards per gate?” said Nicandro G. L. Iannacci ’13, who has participated in other Occupy events. “The idea that the only people allowed here to have this conversation are members of the Harvard community, specifically, is wrong. Why not welcome more people in?”

    In response to the limited access to the Yard, demonstrators relocated to the Harvard Law School campus. As they marched past freshman dorms, they chanted, “Out of your rooms and into the Yard,” rallying the students in the dorms to join.

    After a general assembly, protesters left the Law School campus and tried to re-enter the Yard to set up a tent city, but Securitas guards prevented demonstrators from entering by locking the gates.

    In a tense exchange, students tried to push their way into the Yard—some holding up their Harvard IDs—while guards pushed back to prevent protesters from breaking through the gates.


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