The Dissident Ambassador

In a new paper, Greg Mankiw shares some thoughtful reflections on teaching and heterodoxy:

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.

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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. The other responsible course of action is to avoid teaching introductory (and even intermediate) courses entirely. In a more advanced elective, there is nothing wrong with teaching an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint, as long as students know what they are getting.

Mankiw’s view definitely resonates with me, but my position – and my practice – is rather different.  I say that a professor’s fundamental fiduciary duty is to teach their students about the world – not what his peers think about the world.  As long as your discipline is fundamentally sound, fortunately, these two goals closely overlap.  If your discipline is a corrupt pseudo-science, however, your obligations to your students require you to teach heterodoxy.  Sure, you’ll have to explain the normal view in the process of debunking it.   Yet it’s a dereliction of duty to teach nonsense as fact.

Analogously, by the way, it’s fine to act as a loyal ambassador for a fundamentally virtuous organization.  But if you’re the ambassador for North Korea, you have not only the right but the obligation to be a traitor.  “I’m just promoting my client’s interests” is as flimsy a defense as “I’m just following orders.”  See Mike Huemer on legal ethics for further discussion.

Since I am a professional economist, I’m happy to say that I don’t consider my discipline a corrupt pseudo-science.  However, economics is also far from “fundamentally sound.”  When I teach, then, I try to split the difference.  I spend about half of the time as Mankiw recommends: neutrally describing the economic consensus.  When the consensus is far from the truth, though, I go out of my way to amend it.

Yes, I try to plainly disclose whether I’m describing the research consensus or just telling them what’s actually reasonable to believe.  And no, I don’t penalize students for arguing that the consensus is right and Caplan is wrong.  Some of my exams even require students to disagree with me!  Still, my primary goal is to teach students how the economy works, not what most economists happen to believe.

Furthermore, the only economics students who really need to understand the current conventional wisdom of economics are… graduate students!  After all, no matter how misguided the research consensus happens to be, you can’t be a successful researcher unless you understand it.  Most Econ 1 students, in stark contrast, will never take another economics class.  So the sole economics instructor they’re ever going to have should rigidly focus on economic reality.  Thus, I essentially reverse Mankiw’s advice to confine “idiosyncratic minority viewpoints” to advanced students.  No matter what you think about Keynesianism, you have a fiduciary responsibility to teach your grad students all about it.  Otherwise, they’ll be at a severe professional handicap.  For undergrads, in contrast, the truth of Keynesianism is pivotal.  If your students’ lifetime commitment to economics comes to fifteen weeks, it would be silly to spend five weeks on an intellectual dead-end.

Am I saying that professors should teach whatever they feel is true?  No; a thousand times no.  If you use your “feelings” to form beliefs, you shouldn’t be a professor at all.  The first fiduciary duty of every intellectual is to set emotions aside, and calmly and patiently study a wide range of arguments and evidence.  Once you’ve done that, however, you owe it to your students to share the fruits of your labors.  And if, along the way, you discover that your discipline is misguided, you should let your students know that, too.

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The Peace of Mind in Probabilistic Thinking

I’m a big believer in agnosticism. (See what I did there?)

There are so many things that don’t require a strong opinion or position, and don’t warrant dying.

It’s very stressful to be confronted with questions and claims about culture, physics, politics, psychology, health, economics, history, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy and feel the need to have a clear answer. Especially when answers immediately get interpreted as sides and you’ll get lumped in with some tribal collective blob and be associated with whatever bundle of biases they may have, real or imagined. It’s like behind every possibility lurks a mob shouting, “Are you with us or against us?!”

This is bad for curiosity, learning, and fun.

Besides having fewer opinions and focusing on individuals instead of collectives, another way I’ve found relief from relentless pressure to pick is to think in probabilities instead of binaries.

“Do you think eating gluten is bad for you?” is the kind of question that makes you feel a bit uneasy. You know about the weird tribes in this debate and don’t want to be in them. Still, maybe you’re interested in the topic for yourself or as a general curiosity. If you’re not content with, “I don’t know”, try assigning probability.

“I think there’s a high probability that too much gluten is one cause of my digestive problems” is way more relaxing. You don’t have to give up the examination. You don’t have to stay out of the conversation entirely. But you distance yourself from binary conclusions and tribes, individualize your opinion, and leave open the possibility that your sliding scale of probability can change with more information.

You can’t fake it though. If deep down you’re a hard-liner (which is not all bad in every situation, just very, very dangerous), pretending to be probabilistic to seem sophisticated will only make you more stressed. If you can begin to unwind the reactive need to pick a yes/no and assign probabilities, you will find a release of tension and an expansion of curiosity. You may even be able to read Twitter debates with a smile instead of rage!

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Benjamin Powell: The Economics of Sweatshops (47m)

This episode features a lecture by economics professor Benjamin Powell from 2018. He explores what sweatshops are, why they exist, the economic forces that create them, and why they are a necessary and important component of the developing world. Purchase books by Benjamin Powell from Amazon here.

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Jeffrey Herbener: Demystifying the Federal Reserve (26m)

This episode features an interview of economics professor and department chairman Jeffrey Herbener from 2016 by Jeff Deist, host of the Human Action podcast. They cover the basics of central bank mechanics: how commercial bank reserves are created, the difference between the monetary base and the money supply, and how the Fed Funds rate impacts lending and the structure of production. They consider how Austrian business cycle theory describes the distortions created by artificially low interest rates, and how interest rates ought to operate as price signals. Finally, they discuss how early recipients of newly created money and credit benefit in ways that ordinary citizens don’t.

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Daniel D’Amico: An Economist’s Look at Intellectual Property Law (1h18m)

This episode features a lecture by economics professor Daniel J. D’Amico from 2011 on intellectual property law. He discusses several arguments for and against government enforcement of intellectual property, including trademarks, patents, and copyrights. He explores both moral arguments (deontological) and cost benefit arguments (consequential), dedicating most of his time to consequential arguments. He finds that, in general, intellectual property is difficult to enforce and is inherently an anti-rival good. As a result, he finds no compelling case for government established intellectual property law. Purchase books by Daniel J. D’Amico on Amazon here.

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Reflections on the Balan-Caplan Poverty Debate

I really enjoyed my Tuesday debate on “The Philosophy of Poverty?” with my friend David Balan.  Many thanks to GMU’s Economics Society for setting it up.  While we had a great discussion, here are a few thoughts I’d like to add.

1. In my closing statement, I claimed that we should worry about the accuracy of our moral judgments because (a) moral issues are complex, and (b) human beings throughout history have generally considered their societies to be just no matter how awful they actually were.  Rather than retreat to agnosticism, however, I argued that the right reaction is to focus on simple moral hypotheticals.  Suppose, for example, we want to decide if “I had a disadvantaged background” significantly reduces moral culpability.  The best approach is to imagine a situation where your spouse cheats on you, then pleads, “It’s not my fault, my dad cheated on my mom so I didn’t have a good role model.”  Or better yet, imagine you’re advising a friend in this situation.  To me, the answer’s pretty clear: Excuses like this carry near-zero moral weight.

2. In his closing statement, David objected that he doesn’t believe in credulously accepting such excuses for bad behavior.  As long as David is talking about specific incidents of bad behavior, I believe him.  My point, however, is that if his moral theory were true, he should accept such excuses.  Since he doesn’t, he should abandon his moral theory.

3. David also insisted that he doesn’t accept his society as just.  My point, though, was simply that humans’ judgment about big moral questions is poor, since most people throughout history have accepted their societies as just.

4. David repeatedly referenced the “privilege” of the audience, so this seems like a good time to explain my general views on this matter.  He begins with some truisms.  Have I had many advantages in life for which I cannot reasonably claim credit?  Of course.  For example, I was born into an upper-middle class home in Los Angeles, not a slum in Tijuana.  But David, like most people who appeal to “privilege,” seems to see important implications.  I struggle to figure out what these implications are supposed to be.  Some possibilities:

a. My background partially clouds my judgment due to self-serving bias.  True enough, but the same holds for everyone, including the very least “privileged” people.  Furthermore, since almost no one who shares my background shares my views, it’s hard to see how my background could cause my views.  Indeed, some of my main views – most obviously, the wastefulness of education – are precisely the opposite of what you’d expect from a tenured professor with self-serving bias.

b. Much of my success is unearned, so I shouldn’t resist too hard when politicians propose redistribution.  But this runs afoul of simple moral hypotheticals.  E.g., if your friend stole $100 from your wallet, would you consider, “Unlike you, I came from a poor family,” to be a morally plausibly excuse?

c. Much of my success is unearned, so I shouldn’t feel too proud of my accomplishments.  Well, I would definitely feel even prouder if I grew up homeless in Haiti.  But that hardly shows that I’m wrong to feel very proud indeed.

d. I should avoid hurting the feelings of people who have had a harder life than mine.  A reasonable point, but it’s only a special case of a more general – and widely shared – principle: Avoid hurting people’s feelings.  However, this comes with a complementary principle: Avoid taking offense when none is intended.  From what I’ve seen, most people who talk about “privilege” routinely and grossly violate this latter principle.

Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I doubt it.  What’s really going on, I fear, is that “privilege” is a morally vacuous concept people deploy to demoralize and dehumanize people who disagree with them.

5. David repeatedly said that I overestimated the extent of “predatory” behavior among the poor.  The main thing on my mind, however, is not calculated wrong-doing, but impulsivity.  For example, I doubt many alcoholics ever consciously planned to destroy their families for beverages.  Instead, I think they just fail to control their impulsive thirst – even when they know that acting on this thirst has dire consequences.  Still, that’s more than enough to merit Puritanical condemnation.  The same goes for the full range of irresponsible behavior: unprotected sex, laziness, child neglect, infidelity, violence, and so on.

6. David was incredulous when I suggested that we could significantly alleviate child poverty by holding irresponsible parents more financially accountable.  So let me offer this modest proposal: When a child receives government assistance, we should deduct the cost from his parents’ future Social Security benefits.  If one parent fails to provide child support, we should deduct the cost from his Social Security benefits alone; otherwise, the parents split the cost.  Administratively, this seems quite manageable.  Of course, this modest proposal means that many deadbeat dads will have to endure late retirement, but that seems a lot fairer than burdening taxpayers.

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