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Bias in Economics Textbooks [Updated]

I recently saw a local newspaper article discussing the selection of economics textbooks to be used in teaching economics to high school students in my local school district. A school board member expressed some concerns that a text might be chosen that could reflect the political or other biases of the text authors. As an economist, I (unsurprisingly) endorse teaching economics to high school students but I am well aware that many economists express opinions about economic policy and other economics issues that do not reflect solid economic analysis. Rather their statements reflect their political or other biases.  And so I decided to pursue an example of possible bias recently discussed in a journal devoted to economic analysis.

Richard Vedder is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ohio University and he recently wrote an article in the Winter 2016 issue of the Cato Journal on the state of academic economics. One matter that he discusses there is the accuracy or possible bias of economics texts and he provides what to me is a stunning example of misinformation in an economics text. I checked Professor Vedder’s example and it is indeed entirely accurate.

In Principles of Economics, 12th Edition (1985), written by the late Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus, there is a discussion of the Soviet Union. Consider the following statement (Samuelson and Nordhaus, p. 775) about economic growth in the Soviet Union.

…there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 just six years after this statement was published! Does it seem reasonable to you, dear reader, that a country that is a growth engine of such magnitude would break apart a short time later? How can we explain this astonishing statement? How could these economists be wrong?

The authors were certainly qualified to write an economics text. Paul A. Samuelson was the first Nobel laureate in economics and is widely regarded to be the most outstanding economist in the history of the U.S. William D. Nordhaus has had a distinguished career in research and is on the faculty of Yale University, one of the leading economics departments in the country. So claiming the authors lack credentials hardly seems plausible.

Is this an example of bias? Perhaps but it may also reflect ignorance by the authors who, to my knowledge, were never scholars working on the Soviet economic system.

Suppose we take the view that hindsight is always 20-20 so the authors can be forgiven for making such an incredibly misleading statement. This is also hard to believe. I can recall attending a seminar while a student given by a scholar of the Soviet Union who talked about the inefficiency and mismanagement of the firms in the Soviet Union. Would other scholars in this area of study take the same view of the Soviet economy? Those studying the Soviet Union would certainly be better-informed about the performance of the economy compared to two economists who never worked in the area. My best guess is that Samuelson and Nordhaus were simply ignorant of the state of the Soviet economy.

Now consider how this inaccurate statement about the Soviet Union would affect high school or even university students. They will inclined to believe what they read and so will the high school teachers using the text. After all, adults, naturally viewed by the young as authority figures, are writing about the subject and, in this case, have impeccable credentials. How will this misinformation (and there seems little chance that it was not misleading) prejudice the views of these young students? Will they think that communism is the best form of economic organization?

This example makes clear that there are good reasons to be careful about bias or inaccuracy in textbooks. And so the school board member was absolutely justified in expressing concerns about the accuracy or biases in economics texts. While I do not know anything about the competence of those choosing the text, it is certainly possible that if non-economists choose the text, they may well unwittingly choose a biased textbook. Or, what is worse, they might pick a book that reflects their own biases.

Update

A student informed me that a book he had read stated that the Samuelson-Nordhaus principles text asserted that, as late as 1989, the Soviet system created a high level of economic growth. The source of this claim was The Clash of Economic Ideas by Lawrence H. White. I checked this book and it does state (p. 65) that the 1989 edition of the Samuelson-Nordhaus text claims that the Soviet Union was experiencing high economic growth. The author suggests that Samuelson and Nordhaus were fooled by economic statistics, published by the Soviet Union, that were a fabrication.

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