Posted by: CJ | March 28, 2009

But they make so much money, right?

Paul Gowder is thinking that if econ undergrad alone doesn’t sufficiently prepare econ majors for econ grad school, then there’s something wrong with how the econ undergrad major is structured. This is a valid point. If you look at standard introductory books for graduate microeconomics and graduate macroeconomics you quickly realize they presume a rather massive level of mathematical maturity. They could practically be used as mathematics textbooks. Pure mathematics textbooks at that, since they have relatively little statistics or model-checking. In spite of this, econ undergrad professors and students are smug, smug, smug. After all, a major couldn’t possibly be that popular unless it was doing something right, right? (And yes, this is some of the same reasoning that led to our current financial crisis. Coincidence?)

Apparently in undergrad econ they focus on ideas instead, and less on math. I want to expand on Paul’s thoughts. I can think of at least two major problems with the ideas over real math approach.

The first is that it’s easy for the econ undergrads to miss the point of the math: they aren’t as smart as they think they are. In that post, Dani Rodrik points out that economists use mathematics as a way of systematically rooting out assumptions for all to see, and as a way of checking their reasoning. But that hardly matters if they don’t emphasize the role of assumptions in reaching their conclusions. In another post Prof. Rodrik explains that market equilibria are efficient provided a bunch of assumptions are satisfied. So if the role of math, and specifically the assumptions and reasoning, are systematically ignored then the students could easily become ideologues instead of reasoned thinkers.

The other problem is what Phoebe is thinking about in response to Paul. She points out that notions of math making a subject harder are somewhat specious. This is true. But it’s harder to point out what, exactly, makes finished products in a non-mathematical subject good or bad. In undergrad level mathematics, science, and econ courses you can usually point to a specific point in someone’s argument and say, “your argument is wrong because of a flaw right here.”  And that remains true as long as you stick to the mathematical models. That sort of unarguable absolutism gives subjects using mathematics a ring of truth they don’t necessarily deserve. But, unfortunately, to understand and criticize the subject you must already speak the mathematical jargon. The flip side of the clear contrast between right and wrong when math is involved is how easy it is to believe the lack of that distinction means a subject is either pointless or clueless. (As far as I can tell this is the abhorrent thesis of utilitarianism, where any ideas that can’t be recast into mathematical form are discarded.)

Either way, ignoring assumptions or embracing excess formalism (or worse, both), makes for lousy thinkers. And I really have to wonder how typical an outcome they are for undergrad econ majors.


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