Mankiw on Publishing Textbooks
By David Henderson
Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw, who has become a multi-millionaire by writing and honing his very successful economics textbooks, has written a thoughtful article titled “Reflections of a Textbook Author.” I highly recommend the article, even to people who have no intention of ever writing a textbook. You get to see the considerations that led him to frame the issues the way he did. I agree with a large percent of his choices. I do have some of his criticisms of his textbook and I have written about the main ones here, here, and here.
I can’t do justice to the whole article (26 pages double-spaced, but interesting on every page), but I will give some highlights.
On how the writer should deal with “the profession’s views” when his or her own views differ:
I have always thought that instructors, especially in introductory courses, are like ambassadors for the economics profession. The role of ambassadors is not to represent their own views but to act as agents for their principal. Just as ambassadors are supposed to faithfully represent the perspective of their nations, the instructor in an introductory course (and intermediate courses as well) should faithfully represent the views shared by the majority of professional economists.
This is why I wouldn’t, by Greg’s criterion, be a good textbook writer. And not just by Greg’s criterion, but also by the market’s criterion: My text wouldn’t sell well.
Here’s how I handled these issues in my teaching.
On many issues I agree with the bulk of the profession: effects of rent control, the harm done by restrictions on trade, and the fact that cuts in tax rates will not generally, all else equal, increase government revenue, to name three. I highlight these because they are the three that Greg mentions. Dealing with those was easy.
On the effects of the minimum wage, like Greg, I laid out the basic economics showing why we would expect employment of unskilled labor to fall and then laid out why some economists think it wouldn’t fall much. But Greg goes further. He writes, “I try my best to present both sides fairly, and I avoid revealing my own views (though I am surely imperfect in this endeavor).” I do try my best to present both sides fairly but I don’t (forgive the present tense: I still feel like a professor) even try to avoid revealing my own views. My motivation to be a teacher would have been much less if I purposely suppressed my own views. I think the key is to make clear that the students won’t be penalized for disagreeing. So, for example, if a student on a test wanted to lay out the monopsony model of the labor market to show why he/she thinks a minimum wage might actually increase employment, if the student did it right, with all the right lines, or even just talked through the analysis without a graph, that student would get a 10 out of 10.
On instructor as ambassador:
This perspective of instructor as ambassador raises the question of what instructors should do if they hold views far from the mainstream of the economics profession. If you are an Austrian or Marxist economist, for example, what should you do if asked to teach an introductory course? In my view, there are only two responsible courses of action. One is to sublimate your own views and spend most of the course teaching what the mainstream believes, even if you disagree with it. Because many introductory students will take only one or two courses in economics throughout their educations, it would be pedagogical malpractice, in my judgment, to focus on an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint.
I actually agree with that. Of course, I was not an Austrian or a Marxist and so that was easy. You know who else probably would have agreed with Greg? That noted Austrian economist Murray Rothbard. I remember running into Murray at a conference (this was before he denounced me for being in the Reagan administration) in the late 1970s and we were comparing notes on textbooks. “What do you use for a micro text?” he asked. I don’t even remember my answer: I think it was Edwin Mansfield’s Micro textbook. (I was teaching a micro course to MBAs at the University of Rochester.) But what I found striking was that Murray was looking around for mainstream texts that would work for his students at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
There’s much more in the piece: (1) why he puts micro before macro, (2) why he gives such prominence to growth, and (3) why in the short-run macro part, he uses Aggregate Supply and Aggregate Demand rather than the Keynesian cross. These are three of the biggest decisions and I think he got all three right.
Less is more:
For many years, Otto Eckstein ran the introductory course at Harvard. Unfortunately, I never met him as he passed away just before I joined the faculty. But I have heard one of his aphorisms. Apparently, Otto often told section leaders, “The less you teach them, the more they learn.” What I believe he meant by this is that instructors should avoid overwhelming introductory students with too much information all at once.
Ten big principles of economics:
The first chapter of my introductory textbook introduces ten big principles of economics. They are aimed at the student who has never studied economics before. The goal is to give a brief and understandable introduction to the field, a general sense of where we are heading, and a foundation for the material to come.
I do the same. I call mine “The Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom.”
Near the end, Greg has two quite interesting sections: (1) how the price of textbooks hasn’t risen as much as you might have thought–and he connects this with why changes in the Consumer Price Index overstate inflation, and (2) his section on how to think about whether to become a textbook writer.