Dani Rodrik on economics

December 16, 2011

Dani Rodrik, author of The Globalization Paradox and professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University, wrote an interesting article on contemporary economics called Occupy the Classroom? which comments on the Harvard students who walked out of an economics class taught by Greg Mankiw. While the students complained that the introductory economics course “propagates conservative ideology in the guise of economic science and helps perpetuate social inequality,” Rodrik insists that it is only at the undergraduate level (or in media reports) that economics conveys that impression. In Rodrik’s view, that appearance of conservative ideology evaporates at the graduate level. Consider the following:

“Let a journalist call an economics professor for his view on whether free trade with country X or Y is a good idea. We can be fairly certain that the economist, like the vast majority of the profession, will be enthusiastic in his support of free trade.

Now let the reporter go undercover as a student in the professor’s advanced graduate seminar on international trade theory. Let him pose the same question: Is free trade good? I doubt that the answer will come as quickly and be as succinct this time around. In fact, the professor is likely to be stymied by the question. “What do you mean by ‘good?’” he will ask. “And good for whom?”

The professor would then launch into a long and tortured exegesis that will ultimately culminate in a heavily hedged statement: “So if the long list of conditions I have just described are satisfied, and assuming we can tax the beneficiaries to compensate the losers, freer trade has the potential to increase everyone’s well-being.” If he were in an expansive mood, the professor might add that the effect of free trade on an economy’s growth rate is not clear, either, and depends on an altogether different set of requirements.”

Rodrik seems to assume that the professor in this hypothetical graduate seminar is the kind of professor the students in Mankiw’s class were calling for. But this assumption may well be wrong. Notice that Rodrik’s hypothetical professor still presumes growth to be the ultimate goal of economics. And yet there is a growing chorus of voices (including perhaps the students in Mankiw’s class) challenging these growth-based models that the vast majority of economists cling to. This is the point that Rodrik fails to appreciate.  

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