Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Student's Recollection

More than two decades ago, I took a course in intermediate microeconomics. The textbook was R. Robert Russell and Maurice Wilkinson's Microeconomics: A Synthesis of Modern and Neoclassical Theory. "Modern", in this case, refers to the use of set theory terminology, linear programming, and proofs like those in an introductory real analysis class. In contrast, "Neoclassical" refers to the use of continuously differentiable functions. In any case, the substance of the theory - which is only one possible theory - is unaffected. (I would not have been clear on this at the time.)

One day, our professor was teaching us about oligopoly and the theory of the kinked demand curve. And, in response to a question, the professor said something like, "This is a theory I actually believe". Yet, in the rest of the classes, when he was teaching us to manipulate utility functions or production functions or to take Lagrangians or whatever, he never expressed an opinion of the empirical applicability of what he was teaching us.

I also recall that our professor made a special effort to teach us input-output analysis one week. This topic was not in the textbook, if I recall correctly. But Leontief was coming to give a lecture (not to our class, but in a big lecture hall, that is, CC308). And our professor wanted us prepared. As it was, Leontief's lecture did not concern the details of input-output analysis, but the complaint that most of then contemporary economics was unconcerned with empirical results. Most economists did not even cast their theory in a form where it could be connected up to empirical data that one might collect.

  • Wassily Leontief (1982). Academic Economics, Science, New Series, V. 217, N0. 4555 (9 July): pp. 104-107.
  • Wassily Leonteif (1983). Academic Economics Continued, Science, New Series, V. 219, No. 4587 (25 February): 904.
  • R. Robert Russell and Maurice Wilkinson (1979). Microeconomics: A Synthesis of Modern and Neoclassical Theory, John Wiley & Sons.


Matias Vernengo said...

I was unaware of the existence of this textbook. It seems the math was advanced for an undergrad class. Thanks for the reference.

lefty student said...

I am currently an economics student. We are doing Micro and Maths at the moment.

The Micro teacher goes out of his way to defend the discipline, pre-empting any student problems and regularly describing it as technical rather than ideological.

On the other hand the Maths teacher, who I reckon is a bit of an old socialist, occasionally drops a comment like "all that nonsense they teach you about maximising utility" into the lecture!

Unlearningecon said...


Interestingly, I experienced the exact opposite! My maths teacher - though fairly reasonable - would defend what we were doing. For example, he compared economic models to a map of campus and said the map obviously didn't include all the trees only vital elements. I held back my laughter.

On the other hand, my micro teacher said things like 'let's all stop and think about how utterly incoherent this all is' and demonstrated to us how to refute the upward sloping supply curve.

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comments.

My university is known for training engineers. It is assumed that almost all students will have taken two semesters of calculus by the end of their first year, and many will have taken it in high school. And they will have been expected to have gone on to more math. So I suppose, this helps the economics teacher.

Whatever your attitude to mainstream economics, the professor has a challenge. Should they teach this stuff? If they do it critically, might they just confuse the student? Should they keep their own views out of their teaching? I can see where some might come to different answers.

Unlearningecon said...

I think most people have a hard time grasping intermediate micro and when the professor started criticising it even more were lost. Probably a bad idea, unfortunately.