The evolution of US economics textbooks
Paul Samuelson’s comment, ‘I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treatises – if I can write its economics textbooks’ (Nasar 1995) captures the importance of textbooks. It suggests that there is much to be learned about society and the economics profession by a consideration of its textbooks, and their evolution. In this paper I briefly consider the evolution of US economics texts from 1830 to the present. I concentrate on how their goals have changed over the years, and discuss how those goals reflected their view of what economists knew. The argument of the paper is the following. From 1830 until 1930, economic texts were attempting to teach precepts – educating common sense about economic policy as they saw it. That goal also reflected what they saw themselves doing as economists. Then, in the 1930s there was a change in what the profession saw as its role. It started to see itself more as a pure science, and also started to believe that one could draw lessons about policy from that pure science. That brought about with it a change in the texts, and starting in the 1950s, economic textbooks took on a quite different structure. That structure was first seen in Samuelson (1948) but it quickly spread, as Samuelson’s book became the template for almost all key books after that up until 2010. This template remained the textbook template even though, by the 1970s, the approach it reflected (which some would call the neoclassical), had been abandoned by the cutting edge of the profession, with more and more movement away from it occurring over the next forty years as new avenues of thought were explored, and new technologies were developed. During this period economics moved away from the strict reliance on the supply/demand model, introduced much more empirical work into its analysis, and switched its core modelling techniques to game theory. By the 2000s these changes had led to the development of an active behavioural economics and the introduction of lab experiments as a standard tool of economics. The economic texts, however, did not change with the profession, and as of 2010 most texts had not incorporated that new approach in their core structure. This has created a gap between what economists do and what they teach (Colander 2005). As more and more of the stock of teaching economists become trained
in these new approaches and methods, we can expect to see a major change in the texts.