Archive for May 24th, 2019

The radical plan to change how Harvard teaches economics

May 24, 2019

This Vox piece is being discussed widely:

If Harvard has a most famous course, it’s Economics 10.

The introductory economics class is reliablyone of the most popular courses offered to undergraduates. It’s usually taught in a massive Hogwartsian auditorium, where hundreds of students either dutifully take notes or mess around on laptops as one of the school’s star economists leads them through the basics of supply and demand.

Because Harvard has a tendency to set the pattern for other universities, Ec 10’s textbook is amassive best-seller, used at dozens of other schools, earning its author, professor Greg Mankiw, an estimated $42 million in royalties since it was first released in 1998. Mankiw’s introduction to economics has set the tone not just at Harvard but for how Econ 101 is taught at the country.

Mankiw’s textbook covers the abstract theory that underpins economics as it has been understood for decades. It is about supply and demand, about how prices can be used to match production of a good to its consumption, and about the power of markets as a tool for allocating scarce resources. Students in Ec 10 are asked to plot supply and demand curves, to solve simple word problems about what happens when the mayor of Smalltown, USA, imposes a tax on hotel rooms.

The idea is to impart a basic theory, to lay a foundation for understanding how society works. And that theory strongly implies that markets tend to work without much intervention, and that things like minimum wages might hurt more than help.

But another Harvard economist has a different idea of how to introduce students to economics.

Raj Chetty, a prominent faculty member whom Harvard recently poached back from Stanford, this spring unveiled “Economics 1152: Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems.” Taught with the help of lecturer Greg Bruich, the class garnered 375 students, including 363 undergrads, in its first term. That’s still behind the 461 in Ec 10 — but not by much.

The courses could hardly be more different. Chetty has made his name as an empirical economist, working with a small army of colleagues and research assistants to try to get real-world findings with relevance to major political questions. And he’s focused on the roots and consequences of economic and racial inequality. He used huge amounts of IRS tax data to map inequality of opportunity in the US down to the neighborhood, and to show that black boys in particular enjoy less upward mobility than white boys.

Ec 1152 is an introduction to that kind of economics. There’s little discussion of supply and demand curves, of producer or consumer surplus, or other elementary concepts introduced in classes like Ec 10. There is no textbook, only a set of empirical papers. The material is relatively cutting-edge. Of the 12 papers students are required to read, 11 were released in 2010 or after. Half of the assigned papers were released in 2017 or 2018. Chetty co-authored a third of them.

Reads a lot like what Core economy team is trying to do.

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