By Adrian Arroyo, Opinion Writer, MPP ‘13
The stated reasons for the Harvard Ec 10 walkout are a bit of a moving target: allegations of bias, a complaint that seems rooted in the fact that Mankiw teaches micro before macro, and an assertion of privilege (#humblebrag) that precedes an avowed concern for the injustices perpetuated by an unequal distribution of income, with nary a glance at the tuition bill. The demand for more academic articles on economics—also known as five paragraphs of bad prose on either side of 20 pages of incomprehensible math—and primary sources seems hard to square with the course goal of providing a basic understanding of economics; BLS tables and lengthy passages on 18th century corn laws do not a foundational course make. The overall impression is one of activism in search of an avenue, where the students’ desire to make a statement resulted in a statement that doesn’t make much sense. Fair enough—we all inflict our own preferences on the problems we confront.
Dr. N. Gregory Mankiw is hardly an exception to that rule. Far from the classroom, the man at the center of this teapot tempest has worked to shape our understanding of inequality in this country. In a New York Times op-ed titled, “I Can Afford Higher Taxes, But They’ll Make Me Work Less,” Mankiw argued that taxes generally and the estate tax in particular were major disincentives to work. As Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum pointed out at the time, there are a few problems with his thesis. The world he uses as his base for comparison is one without taxes. It’s also a world where Dr. Mankiw doesn’t get to total his “Ec 10” BMW because someone stole it out his driveway long beforehand. No taxes, no policemen. Furthermore, the estate tax applies to each marginal dollar above a threshold of $5m, so arguing that aggregated across 30 years a payout of $2000 instead of $1000 would give him “twice the incentive to keep working” is laughable (Laffable?). By the time his estate is worth more than five million, a few thousand more has a negligible effect on his incentives.
Dr. Mankiw is a neo-Keynesian, and believes that under certain circumstances the government can use counter-cyclical fiscal policy to reduce the severity of an economic downturn. But by simultaneously arguing for policies that concentrate wealth on a generational scale, he’s perpetuating the very situation that so many find objectionable: insulating a tiny percentage of the elite from the vicissitudes of economic life, while socializing the risk. The government retains its obligation to restore growth in these instances, but has an ever-decreasing pool of money with which to accomplish that goal. It achieves through fiscal means what today’s Republican Party has used Senate procedure to accomplish: the expectation of government action combined with policy paralysis.
That’s practically a want ad for Republican congressmen, and it’s the reason we should concern ourselves Dr. Mankiw’s political biases as they manifest in our public discourse, not in the classroom.