The “Textbook Controversy”: Lessons for Contemporary Economics

By Catherine Lawson

Abstract:

This paper begins with an incident, drawn from early postwar history, that has received increased attention in recent years but still has not been widely discussed within (or outside) the economics profession. The incident, sometimes known as the “textbook controversy,” is the political suppression of the first Keynesian textbook to appear in the United States: The Elements of Economics by Lorie Tarshis, published in 1947. A brief examination of the causal forces behind this example of “blackballing” within economics—occurring well before notorious McCarthy-era episodes, such as those experienced in the entertainment industry—leads naturally to a number of broader issues. One is the suppression’s effect on the subsequent development of economic theory, policy, and pedagogy. Equally important, the question is raised anew about conflicts of interest and the influence of moneyed interests in the economics profession. Finally, for the purpose of this paper, these historic events highlight the larger issue of who “owns” and participates in economic discourse and how the fruits of this discourse are—or should be—disseminated to the broader public. Review of the textbook controversy thus provides an interesting prism through which to view issues of far-reaching contemporary significance and also to gain fresh perspective about the appropriate conduct of economic debate.

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