From David Tufte, a long time intellectual friend of us around here:
Do Economists Need to Start Misspelling Marx?
Marx is the # 3 text required on college syllabi, according to the Open Syllabus Project.†
This is like a cruel joke played upon the field of economics.
But, the nature of search engine optimization is that it quantifies better than it qualifies.
If an economist discusses Marx in a negative light (a fairly common thing), search engines present that as a positive Marx-is-important rather than a negative Marx-was-wrong-on-a-great-many-things.
Our world doesn’t need that sort of confusion.
Perhaps economists need to start misspelling Marx to game the search engines.
Or spell it out in 1337 (although my guess is that this is an easy thing to incorporate in SEO.
† Yes, Engels is Marx’ coauthor. But Marx gets 159,000,000 hits on Google. When you search for Engels, Google doesn’t even provide a count. By comparison, Keynes, a rather important economist with an uncommon name gets about 40% of that number.
As to why this should be done the point is that Marx really was wrong. Badly and misleadingly so:
Why Is Macro So Hard? Marx, Engels, and Plato
The Open Syllabus Project tracks over 100K college syllabuses to see which texts are used.
At number 3 is The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (this is the shorter, more political than economic book, that is often paired with readings from the 3 volumes of Marx’ Capital).
My guess is that this may be the primary exposure to economics that many students get.
An analogy would be if Paley was read by far more students than Darwin.
This is not to say that Marx wasn’t a great economist. He definitely recognized and discussed the big unsolved or unaddressed problems of his day. But that was half to 2/3 of the way back to Adam Smith. A lot has happened since then. That’s like contemporary chemists reading Priestley: old, seminal on some points, and woefully wrong and out of date on others.
And Marx’ labor theory of value, his core idea, was a failed attempt at explaining the paradox of value. An important aspect of why it failed is that he came up with an answer before others did, that was later shown to be flawed by the marginal revolution. In most fields, that would be called a valiant attempt, with emphasis on the attempt part.
And yet, I have never, ever, had an incoming student at any level who could explain why it was wrong. This makes me think that while # 3 is being covered a lot, an essential part of the story is being left out.
In context, Marx is best thought of as a low and thick branch on the tree of economics knowledge. It was a worthwhile direction to go as the field explored new directions. But when it didn’t work out, economics as we now understand the field to be, backed out of that branch and went down the others, and flourished.
At number 2 is Plato’s Republic. OK. I’ll give on this one. It’s a great and seminal piece of social thought. But I wonder how many students get through as much of it as they can and come out the backside understanding that it doesn’t have much to do with democracy, republics, and elections as they’ve come to understand them?
In an event, as an economist, I find this work to be blissfully unaware that decentralized exchange is important or worthwhile. And yet understanding of decentralized exchange is what economics is all about.
A case in point is the prisoners’ dilemma. It wasn’t until halfway through the 20th century that a couple of mathematicians hit on a fundamental problem for understanding economics: optimal choices do not always lead to optimal outcomes. Plato knew nothing of this when he considered the best government to be that of an all-wise and all-knowing philosopher king, who made nothing but optimal choices.
So why is macro so hard? Because these authors are blithering idiots on the subject of what we now call economics, or on the subject of economics as presented in the news every day. If this is informing students’ viewpoints on some topics, no wonder they find what we do difficult.
I’ll even update my analogy. Paley was at least talking about some of the same things as Darwin. Better yet would be Origen and Augustine, discussing diversity without any conception of the random part of random selection producing it. That’s what teaching Marx, Engels, and Plato is doing to college students.