My Experience As A University of Massachusetts Econ Student
The first college classroom I ever walked into was an economics lecture at the University of Massachusetts. It wasn’t just any classroom, though. The 500+ person venue (Mahar) was a full fledged auditorium. As far as classrooms go, it was a massive space and thus an intimidating sight for an 18-year-old.
I sat down near the middle of the room so to blend in as much as possible. Then, in walks the professor. He’s wheeling a bicycle in as he makes his entrance and is still wearing his helmet. “Welcome to Amherst,” is what I should have been thinking.
This man ended up being Gerald Friedman, an Ivy League educated (Columbia and Harvard) economics professor. Friedman had been in Amherst since the 1980s and looked every bit the part of an Amherst-area professor.
Friedman did end up having many of the common attributes of the progressive UMass professor, but I hadn’t seen anything yet.
Two semesters later, it was time to step-up my economics game. No, I wasn’t about to take a ridiculously gnarly Game Theory course — that would come later. I just recently decided to declare my economics major and I was about to take my first upper-level econ course. This, before ever stepping foot in that class room, was the most uncertain (read: frightened) I’d been since my first economics class with Professor Friedman a year prior.
This time around my professor was new to UMass. In fact he has just become an associate professor. He, although certainly still looking like an economics-geek, did not appear to fit the mold of the typical (see: liberal) Amherst professor. Professor Michael Ash was clean cut, but he held a PhD from Cal Berkley. As I would come to learn during this “Economics of Health Care” course, he was every bit as left-wing as you might now imagine a UMass professor to be.
Professor Ash is now a professor and the Chair of the University of Massachusetts Economics Department. The department has become to be known as “outside the mainstream” and extremely progressive. This was really the goal since former Harvard professor Samuel Bowles and four others (including Richard Wolff) came to Amhest to remake the department in the 1970s. As reported in a recent WaPo piece; “One dean did mention, and whether this was a joke I’ll never know, that the goal was to become the Berkeley of the east,” Wolff says.
Under the guidance of those five, the department came to specialize in both Marxist economics and post-Keynesian economics.
This type of thinking proliferated throughout the department into the mid-2000s when I was an undergraduate at UMass. Some of the original professors of the 1970s were still teaching when I came through. This included a Keynesian/Marxian hybrid professor named James Crotty. Crotty was my “intermediate” macro professor during my junior year. First, there was nothing intermediate about the course. I can honestly say that it was one of the most difficult courses I have ever taken (even now as I march my way to completion of a post-graduate degree at Northeastern University). Crotty, per his Keynesian/Marxian designation, wasn’t your typical macro professor. Take the September 2011 paper which I recently read, for example. Crotty starts of with what ends up being a rather tame, common liberal approach;
“After tracing the long-term evolution of our current deficit crisis, I show that this crisis should be resolved primarily raising taxes on upper-income households and large corporations, cutting war spending, and adopting a Canadian or European style health care system.”
However, he goes on to turn up the heat;
“A coalition of the richest and most economically powerful segments of society, conservative politicians who represent their interests, and right-wing populist groups like the Tea Party has demanded that deficits be eliminated by severe cuts at all levels of government spending that either supports the poor and the middle class or funds crucial public investment. It also demands tax cuts for the rich and for business. These demands constitute a deliberate attempt to destroy the New Deal project, begun in the 1930s, whose goal was to subject capitalism to democratic control … Calls for massive government spending cuts should be seen as what they are – an attack by the rich and powerful against the basic interests of the American people.”
Boom goes to progressive dynamite. For those interested, the paper is titled, “The Great Austerity War: What Caused the US Deficit Crisis and Who Should Pay to Fix It?”
I don’t read most of the research that comes from the UMass econ professors. Thus, I thought Crotty’s take on austerity would be all I’d hear from my former department on the topic and boy was I wrong.
I recently opened up an email which contained a link to a UMass news story. I went on to read about how a UMass graduate student’s research paper had “gone viral.” I was hooked and had to read on. PhD candidate Thomas Herndon is getting international attention, not only in economic circles, but from the mainstream media, as well.
His paper revealed serious errors in a major study by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff (“R&R”) that was used as the framework for austerity policies across the U.S. and internationally.
And, once again austerity would become the target of the UMass economics department.
Thomas Herndon ended up publishing his paper with my former professor Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin. The part that has received the mainstream media attention being that this Harvard-based study contained a simple Excel error.
“I checked my e-mail, and saw that I had received a reply from Carmen Reinhart,” he says. “She said she didn’t have time to look into my query, but that here was the data, and I should feel free to publish whatever results I found.”
Herndon pulled up an Excel spreadsheet containing Reinhart’s data and quickly spotted something that looked odd.
“I clicked on cell L51, and saw that they had only averaged rows 30 through 44, instead of rows 30 through 49.”
What Herndon had discovered was that by making a sloppy computing error, Reinhart and Rogoff had forgotten to include a critical piece of data about countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios that would have affected their overall calculations.
A darn SPREADSHEET ERROR. And let the jokes began.
Those jokes include multiple segments on the Colbert Report.
In closing, I certainly don’t wish to discuss my opinion on the actual economic policies of either the right or left in this venue. However, I’m so lucky to have been shaped by such interesting and influential professors at the University of Massachusetts. Lastly, I am proud that the department is getting a great deal of positive publicity.