Posted by: CJ | April 4, 2010

(One Of) Economic Departments’ Devil’s Bargain

Modern economics as a research discipline is incredibly advanced. They use tons of high level statistical techniques and very rigorous models. Many economics students learn and use mathematics and statistics beyond what undergraduate math or stat majors would ever know.

But it’s really easy to not realize that. Especially if your only evidence is what undergraduate economics majors know. And that’s because economics departments have a dirty little secret they don’t like to mention: you can’t get into a graduate economics program, let alone to quality economics research, taking classes only in the economics department.

This is rather unique amongst all the sciences and social sciences. You might not have good chances of getting admitted to a graduate program without some breadth. But in all other disciplines you are at least qualified to go to graduate school in that discipline with that department’s major alone.

There’s a simple reason for this state of affairs: economists don’t like dealing with the headaches in teaching math causes. Students get nervous, the number of majors go down, and lots of time is spent on irrelevant math the students should have a firm grasp of but never do. On the other hand, the basic ideas can be easily stated in basic English. This compares with physics, where it’s impossible to coherently state many ideas without using mathematical notation. It’s also possible to use economic reasoning very well with only a low-level of math, say high school algebra and a firm grasp of how to manipulate numbers. With only those tools, economics professors can talk about and focus a great deal on economic ideas and reasoning, at the expense of constructing and detailing the formal models and empirical research underlying this reasoning.

So that’s what economics departments do. And because they’re discussing interesting and complex ideas, with just enough math to make the major seem technical, many people want to become econ majors. So the professors get to have fun teaching and the number of majors swells, making the department large and powerful to boot. Meanwhile, economics students interested in econ grad school are forced to take either math or CS or physics or stat courses to give them the requisite technical skills, giving those departments more minors and majors. So it’s not hard to understand why the econ departments pursue this policy, or why some more technical departments appreciate it.

So why am I writing about it? And why do I sound like it bothers me? Because I think it could poison the political discourse of economics. It gives us lots of college graduates pseudo-educated in economics, who know some of the broad ideas without appreciating the technical assumptions or evidence underlying when they’re true and when they aren’t. And I tend to believe people just educated enough to not appreciate the limitations of what they know are extremely dangerous to political discourse.

I’m obviously more worried about this state of affairs than most people. But it’s hard not to be bothered by a discipline conferring degrees with such a huge gap between undergraduate understanding and graduate requirements, especially when that discipline is so politically relevant. (Much more so, in practice, than political science or sociology or any other social science.)

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