A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas

I’m not a fan of recommending a particular textbook to my students in any course that I teach. I’m not a fan of textbooks in general, but that’s a story for another day.

The reason I am against the idea that you should read “a” textbook for a course is because I find the idea that you can learn a subject by reading just one book to be a deeply repugnant one. I’m happy to recommend ten, or more. And students should learn by dipping into all of them!

But if you were to put a gun to my head and tell me that I must absolutely recommend just one macro text for Indian students who are learning macro for the first time, A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas would be it.

Why? For the following reasons:

Rare is the textbook that begins with a disclaimer to the effect that the author did not want to write a textbook. Rarer still is the preface that goes on to say that other textbooks (and more besides!) should also be read. If you are an econ prof, you must have read multiple prefaces by now that dispense advice about how chapters such-to-such, followed by chapters these-to-those ought to be included in an introductory course, but on the other hand chapters extra-but-still-necessary only need be included in an intermediate course.

The preface to this book does no such thing. Read the whole book, it says, and read more besides.

But the second most important part of the preface, and the part that got me hooked to the whole book is that includes a reference to a novel. That in itself is, well, novel. Second, it is an Indian novel. Third, it is a novel that has nothing to do with macroeconomic theory. This is a book that teaches you that macroeconomic theory – that after all, is the job of a textbook – but it is also a book that teaches you what to do with that theory. It teaches you to apply that theory to get a handle on the society that you need to study, and it helps you understand that this society is so much more than the abstractions of economic theory. Use this book to appreciate life better, it seems to say. Or, in the language of us economists, Alex Thomas has written the book as a complement to everything else that you will read and learn about Indian society. Not as a substitute. That is a rare old achievement, and one well worth celebrating.

The most important part?

Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualize and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little about the gaps between theory and data, and occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought.

Preface, pp xvi, Macroeconomics An Introduction

There are nine chapters in the book, and I hope Alex Thomas won’t mind me listing them out over here:

  1. What is economics?
  2. Conceptualising the macroeconomy
  3. Money and interest rates
  4. Output and employment levels
  5. Economic growth
  6. Why economic theory matters
  7. The policy objectives of full employment
  8. The policy objective of low inflation
  9. Towards good economics

Say you want to teach a course in macroeconomics to students who have not studied the subject before. Conceptually speaking, here are the questions I would want to answer as an instructor:

What are we studying here, exactly? What are we abstracting from all of reality and of those abstractions, which features matter more than the others? Why are we studying whatever it is that we’re studying? If we (students and the prof) agree on the answers to the first few questions, how do we go about defining and measuring “success”? Why put the word success in inverted quotes?

Chapter 1 | Chapters 2,3,4 | Chapters 5 and 6 | Chapters 7 and 8 | Chapter 9 is how I interpret the layout of the book, in line with the questions above. Personally, I would have wanted to put chapters 5 and 6 right after chapter 1, but after having read the book, I can understand why the book was structured the way it has been. In particular, the four sections of the sixth chapter can only become truly comprehensible after you’ve gone through chapters 2,3,4. If I were to be teaching a course on macro, I would still be tempted to jump from 1 to at least the spirit of chapters 5 and 6, but that’s just my personal preference at play. Growth matters, and helping students appreciate why growth matters can be hugely motivating.

This book deserves a separate section of the review dedicated exclusively to the richness of the text. I challenge you to find me another textbook, from anywhere in the world that can go from talking about Tony Aspromourgo’s chapter on Piero Sraffa on pp 100, to talking about a Telugu novella on pp 102 (Kesava Reddy’s Moogavani Pillanagrovi: Ballad of Ontillu, 2013) to talking about Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari on pp 103! To be clear, the challenge isn’t finding another textbook that talks of these three sources specifically (I can guarantee you that there isn’t another one!), but one that manages to traverse such breadth. Breathtaking stuff, and I never imagined I would use that phrase while reviewing a macro text.

But it’s not just that one series of excerpts. Every chapter is liberally sprinkled with a list of reading recommendations that stand out for their sheer breadth. All of them have been listed out between pages 200-208 in the text, and just these eight pages alone are worth the price of admission. Well, these eight pages and the two that precede it. In those two pages, Alex Thomas lists out all the data sources that have been used in the case of each table from each chapter.

In particular, this book deserves to be praised for raising repeatedly issues of caste, gender and ecology at various points through the text. Growth, but at what cost? Land as a factor of production, sure, but rooted in which society, and with therefore what consequences?

Consider this excerpt from pp 128, for example:

A village economy cannot be understood as a simple departure from the competitive macroeconomy we have discussed thus far. It requires us to understand how village space is divided and demarcated (typically on the basis of caste). The spatial inequality present in a village economy is captured very well by Kota Neelima in her depiction of a poor and indebted farmer’s house in Death of a Moneylender (2016).

The very next paragraph touches upon aspects of religion and its linkages to labor mobility. As always reasonable people can and should argue about how much of an impact these aspects (and other aspects of Indian society) have on the cold austere ivory tower approach that most macroeconomic textbooks adopt. I think it is a very significant impact, and you may not – and that is, of course, absolutely fine. But we are debating the quantum of significance and relevance, not questioning its very existence – and that is very, very welcome indeed.

Indeed, this is a book that ends with an exhortation: if you take one thing away from this book, Alex Thomas seems to be saying, take away an appreciation for the pluralistic approach (pp 196):

If you are a student of economics, you will soon study “statistics for economists’ and ‘mathematics for economists’. In both these methods of economics, there exist multiple concepts, theories and approaches, just like in macroeconomics and microeconomics; pay attention to the fact that these ‘methods of economics themselves both originated and are used within a social context. Moreover, a pluralistic approach to economics by itself is not sufficient when employing economics in the service of public policy; it is important to keep in mind the collective wishes of people as Xaxa’s poem in Section 1.4 pointed out.
I end this book with the hope that you take pluralism as a friend, sometimes a difficult one, in your journey of learning.

The pluralistic approach isn’t just restricted to moving across (and beyond) the social sciences. Even within the domain of macroeconomic theory, Alex Thomas takes the time and trouble to make sure that all views about the macroeconomy are fairly represented. The fifth chapter in particular is notable for this, but that should be taken to be especial praise for that chapter, not a faint damning of the others!

What could have been done better? If this book is intended for people learning about macroeconomics for the first time, I think this books errs on the side of doing a little bit too much. Some sections might be a little bit too involved for a reader who still has to cultivate a taste for macroeconomic theory (and god knows it is very much an acquired taste). And some first time readers might also not appreciate some of the macroeconomic controversies and the role they have played in pushing the field further.

This should beg the obvious question: well, what, exactly, should be cut? Well, not cut exactly, but some of the more involved explanations can be turned into, say, accompanying YouTube explainers (about which more below).

There are also some notable names missing from an introductory text of macroeconomics, but I’m all but certain that this is a case of conscious choice rather than inadvertent omission.

A tip to the students reading this review: help Alex out by coming up with videos that will act as accompaniments to the text. That is, if you are doing the hard work of reading through the text and understanding it, help others by creating content that will act as a complement to the reading of the text. Many students should do this, and in many languages! As Alex says, embrace plurality, both in terms of approach and understanding, but also linguistically speaking.

My biggest problem with the book is a bit of a meta-problem, and I hope I turn out to be wrong in what I am about to say. The biggest requirement, I think, of this book is a teacher who will do it justice. I honestly do not think that this book can be read by a first-time student of macroeconomics without some sort of mentoring and guidance. To be clear, this is not about the book being difficult or inaccessible – I am of the opinion that macroeconomics just is that hard.

But if what I’m saying is correct, then the success of the book is as dependent on the guide/mentor/professor as it is upon both the book and the reader. And that brings me to my answer to whether or not I would recommend that you read this book. It is not, I think, for everybody. But that’s not a criticism of the book, or its contents or the author. It is an acknowledgment of just how hard macroeconomics really is. In fact, Alex Thomas himself says that a year of undergrad studies in economics is recommended before you tackle this book.

But hey, hopefully I turn out to be wrong! Hopefully you can and will read this book and understand it.

And if you are already a serious student of economics (whether formally enrolled in a university or otherwise), then I absolutely and unreservedly recommend this book to you. As a student of Indian macroeconomics, you simply couldn’t do better. Period.

P.S. Alex Thomas will be speaking about his book to the students from the Gokhale Institute on the 17th of September. I don’t think livestreaming is possible, alas, but we will be putting up the recording on our YouTube channel for sure. If you have questions you’d like to ask Alex Thomas, pass them along here in the comments. We’ll try to work them in!

3 thoughts on “A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas

  1. New to economics (graduate in Engineering)
    I am currently reading Macroeconomics by N. Gregory Mankiw.
    Do you reccommend this book right after that? (next up in my list was Intermediate Microeconomics by Varian)

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