6.6.08

TWO WRONGS DO NOT MAKE ... The Los Angeles Times reports on an openly libertarian university, Guatemala's Francisco Marroquin University, with economics in the core curriculum. The founder, Manuel Francisco Ayau Cordon, is making some of the right people uncomfortable.
Some leftists deride him as a lackey of the ruling classes, dishing up neo-liberal dogma to rich kids in a nation where a few powerful families still call most of the shots. Conservative elites chafe at his op-ed harangues about their cozy oligopolies and government protections.
Critical Mass suggests that the absence of economics in the curriculum goes a long way toward understanding some of the academy's common prejudices.

So much comes down to money--and so few of us have any clue whatsoever about how money really works. I'm among the ignorant--knowing just enough to know that I know very little indeed. But I'm like most of us. And it's been interesting to watch certain economic discussions unfold--about, for example, what Harvard should or should not be doing with its huge endowment; or about universal health care (which we can't begin to afford, but which we continue to see as a panacea); or about the capital gains tax (which Obama would raise without understanding)--when you can recognize both your own ignorance about economics and the ignorance of many who are influential in shaping national discussions about money. Everybody thinks he is an authority on how money ought to be managed and spent. But few of us really understand what money is, how it works, or what kinds of consequences can come from certain kinds of financial decisions.

And small wonder. Very few of us have ever studied economics. And the problem is so big that it's not even on the radar. You hear so much about how our educational system is shortchanging students when it comes to math, science, civics, and history. But you never hear about the crippling effects of ignorance about money and economies. Colleges and universities, as ACTA observed in a 2004 study, don't require students to study it--not even those rare schools with a solid core curriculum.

This is the flip side of the problem produced by academe's broadly socialist monoculture--there is a great deal of friendliness, explicit and tacit, to such things as collectivism and cooperation, redistribution of wealth, government-run social programs, single-payer health care, and so on. There is likewise a broad hostility to capitalism and free market principles. But these leanings are rarely undergirded with a grasp of economic facts or realities. And that's a calculated gap. You don't have to look hard at all to find colleges and universities that press students, in course after course, to make moral determinations about how economies ought to be run--but you would be hard pressed to find a school that requires students to ground those determinations in actual economic knowledge.

An economics curriculum that taught the controversies, whether as a required course or not, would not necessarily inoculate students against the "broadly socialist monoculture." Students would have the opportunity to decide whether Stiglitz or Stigler have the more compelling analyses of institutions, including the state, or whether Friedman or Keynes have the more accurate understanding of consumption behavior. That's a lot of work. It's probably easier to offer Samuelson's operators manual for the welfare state, or one of its many imitators, as reinforcement for the "market failures warrant corrective action by the national government" normative position. In so doing, however, the fundamentals might go missing.

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