Tearing Up an Economics Textbook

Robert Samuelson, the economics columnist, has written a column titled, It’s time we tear up our economics textbooks and start over. What he actually says is we should tear up Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Economics:

But as a teaching device, [Mankiw’s] “Principles of Economics” has fallen behind. There’s little analysis of the impact of the Internet and digitalization on competition and markets. I couldn’t find either Apple or Facebook in the index; Google gets a few mentions.

Likewise, little attention is paid to the 2007-2009 Great Recession, the worst business downturn since the Great Depression, which also receives scant coverage relative to its significance. (Together, the two recessions receive about three pages, from 725 to 727.)

There’s some misleading information about the Great Recession and parallel financial crisis. On Page 691, we have this: “Today, bank runs are not a major problem for the U.S. banking system or the Fed.” This would surely surprise the Fed, which poured trillions of dollars into the economy to prevent financial collapse.

Mankiw’s assertion can be defended on narrow, technical grounds. There was no run by retail depositors (people like you and me) against commercial banks. We were protected by deposit insurance. But there was a huge run — a panic — by institutional investors (pension funds, hedge funds, insurance companies, endowments) that withdrew funds from traditional banks, investment banks and the commercial paper market.

…Mankiw’s textbook needs more than a touch-up; it needs a major overhaul. It has very little history: for example, the industrialization of the 19th century. Nor is there much about the expansion of the global economy. China gets a few mentions.

The market for principles textbooks, however, is competitive and there are alternatives to Mankiw. Krugman and Wells, for example, have a lot of very interesting boxes on the world economy and historical events. Modern Principles of Economics doesn’t use boxes but we illustrate the principles of economics with historical events and, of course, we use tech companies such as Facebook and Apple to discuss network effects and coordination games. Samuelson is a bit harsh on Mankiw, however, because it’s very easy to overwhelm students with details. Like physics, economics is powerful because it explains many things with a handful of principles. It’s true that Mankiw’s book doesn’t have much history or color–his paradigmatic market is the market for ice cream–but abstraction can focus attention. The tradeoff, of course, is that it can also lead to vanilla economics. But the Mankiw text is clearly written and the micro text is especially well organized, one reason we chose a similar organization for Modern Principles.

In Modern Principles we illustrate the ideas with more interesting markets but we work with them repeatedly so students don’t become overwhelmed. Our paradigmatic market is the market for oil. We use it to teach supply and demand, cartels, and the importance of real macroeconomic shocks. Using the market for oil also lets us teach about some important events in world history such as the OPEC oil crisis and the industrialization of China.

Samuelson is correct that the financial crisis was a run on the shadow banks but he’s incorrect that this isn’t taught to students of Econ 101. Here’s Tyler on the financial crisis. He covers leverage, securitization, asymmetric information, bank runs, fire sales and the rise of the shadow banking system. Students with the right textbook are well informed about the financial crisis and the economic principles that can help us to understand, analyze and perhaps avoid future financial crises.


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