Sunday 25 November 2012

The Big Challenge!

Some weeks ago Prof. Nick Rowe issued a challenge: those (like yours truly) criticising neo classical economics on an intuitive basis should read cover-to-cover at least an intro textbook on micro and macro. (See here)

Rowe was kind enough to offer a series of links to several of them, freely available online (graciously abstaining from recommending any title in particular: "They are all fairly similar in coverage and treatment. And they are almost all good, in my opinion".), to which his regulars spontaneously added their own suggestions.

A suggestion I found particularly interesting was to contrast older and more recent books on the same subject (say older macro books vs. newer ones) to see how the material has changed over time.

That is a fair challenge, if there ever was one, and one I am willing to accept. As I see things, personal perceptions on neo classical economics and economists (and their policies), no matter how well-founded on experience one might think they are, could be unfairly mistaken.

Mind you, it's not an easy challenge for your humble scribbler (a middle-aged bloke, away from a classroom for decades, employed, if part-time, and on low incomes).

For one, the challenge involves reading the books cover-to-cover: so to speak, my mantra is "the whole enchilada and then some" (as suggested by the reading).

Additionally, my maths are not up to scratch (therefore, I need to look after this before going further into the more technically demanding literature). Judging by the contents of several popular "maths for economists" (the newest being Carl P. Simon and Lawrence Blume's "Mathematics for Economists", 1994, W.W. Norton), there are two subjects I need to cover to achieve a basic first year in economics proficiency: calculus (including lineal and non-lineal programming) and lineal algebra.

To cover micro and macro, the main economic areas, I more or less arbitrarily[*] chose four books: the more basic Jeffrey M. Perloff's "Microeconomics" (3rd edition, 2004, Pearson/Addison Wesley) and the more advanced Hal Varian's "Microeconomic Analysis" (3rd edition, 1992, international students, W.W. Norton); and Olivier Blanchard and Jeffrey Sheen's "Macroeconomics" (Australasian edition, 2004, Pearson/Prentice Hall) and Rudiger Dornbusch and Stanley Fischer's "Macroeconomics" (6th edition, 1994, McGraw-Hill).[#]

As the challenge involves reviewing fairly one side in a debate (the neo classical side), fairness involves reviewing thoroughly the other side as well (the critics of neo classical economics), and how the debate has evolved over time.

In other words, this means I should also read in more detail neo classicism's contemporary critics (like Steve Keen or John Quiggin, for instance): not just an isolated lecture or paper, but cover-to-cover. Curiously, I haven't had much luck getting their books in the second-hand market.

But there are older traditions of criticism to neo classicism that should not be left out of the contest of economic ideas: therefore, I am also reading on a cover-to-cover basis Frank Stilwell's "Political Economy" (2002, Oxford University Press) and Ernest Mandel's 1967 "An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory".

On history of economic thought, I have almost finished William J. Barber's "A History of Economic Thought" (Pelican Books, 1967, reprinted in 1979).

There are other books I will endeavour to read (Sraffa, Kliman and Sweezy and Baran are there), but they will have to wait.

And that's precisely what I am up to.

[*] To be precise, I first compiled a list of popular/highly recommended books. Next I checked the authors' academic reputation in mainstream economics. Then, when and if second-hand, cheap in good condition printed copies became locally available, bingo.
[#] Incidentally, I also own a copy of Ben S. Bernanke, Nilss Olekalns and Robert H. Frank's "Principles of Macroeconomics" (2005, McGraw-Hill) and an assortment of antediluvian books whose sole mention here would make me blush (and give the readers a good laugh).


  1. Just promise us you won't come out the other side less intelligent than you are going in. :-)

    More seriously, it's a worthwhile exercise, even if only to understand more clearly where the dominant perspectives are coming from in mainstream policy debates.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, guys!

    But I can't promise anything, Pete. We should perhaps start considering the premise...

    It is a worthwhile exercise and it could be fun: the books are quite visually attractive, although really "fat".

  3. Wait a minute, I want to play! Stop being so "Australian" all the time.

    BUT, I will only read one book. So please recommend ONE book that will give me the broadest overview, and I will give it a shot.

  4. Hey Trixie!

    Sorry I didn't review your comment sooner.

    Regarding the book recommendation: I can hardly recommend anything!

    Besides, trust me, you don't want my recommendation: I'm an old fart and only learning. :-)

    But I can recommend someone who can recommend a book: try at Prof. Rowe's post. If he himself can't recommend anything, maybe his regulars could.

  5. I checked out Nick's post, and he has comments closed. No email addy I could find or Twitter acct etc...

    My conclusion: He is probably a terrible person who hates kittens. ;-)

    BUT, the very first comment links to:

    Nick said he briefly reviewed the Rittenberg/Tregarthen textbook and it seemed OK. That's good enough for me. It's also immediately accessible online, so I'm gonna start there.

    Also, can you please tell Peter I am doing this ONLY because I am running out of material on new ways to heckle him? Pointing out how he got screwed in his "education" seems like a good start.


    1. Just FYI, the two econ textbooks currently the most assigned (in the US, anyhow) are the one by Greg Mankiw and the one by Krugman and Wells. An older edition of Krugman and Wells is available online:

      If you want to do an older book, the two best are Paul Samuelson, which went through many editions, each of which has substantial differences from the others, and Lorie Tarsus's 1946 textbook, which is online here:

      All of these authors are Keynesian, but so were my professors. I'm not sure what textbooks are favored by freshwater types.