The Making of an Economist, Redux

Last summer I read “The Making of an Economist, Redux” by David Colander, a 2000s do-over of a 1980s survey of whats going on in the wee brains of economics grad students. A little bit of introspection goes a long way, but not much of what’s going on in the book really seems like me or economics grad students I know.

Right up front we get a peach of a definition:

“For example, were an undergraduate student to ask an economist how to become an economist…. he would most likely tell her, ‘To become an economist who is considered an economist by other economists, you have to go to graduate school in economics.'”

And we thought defining “economics” was hard! Indirectly, this really tells you as much as the book itself about what economists are up to – that is, forming a closed shop where only PhDs may enter. That would be less worrisome if we weren’t beating diversity out of PhDs almost as aggressively as we beat it out of “Principles of Economics” students…

Anyway, the book surveys economics graduate students. Well, economics graduate students at one of the “elite” (book’s word) schools (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, MIT, Princeton, Yale). Colander defends this choice by pointing out – correctly – the disproportionate influence of economists stationed at those schools, which hire new faculty predominantly from one of the others’ PhD pools. Perhaps limitations in the research budget are to blame, but it would be very interesting to see what was going on at other institutions as well. Non-US universities, smaller schools…

It might change a few of the most surprising results of the surveys. On the issue closest to my heart, 40% of the grad students surveyed disagree that “we can draw a sharp line between positive and normative economics”. Which makes my eyes water.

On the other hand, a bunch of boring-type economic policy questions drew pleasingly all-over-the-place answers. One with some degree of consensus: A strong majority agreed with the statement “Income distribution in developed nations should be more equal”, which is emphatically not what I would expect the public perception of an economists’ opinion to be. It probably partly reflects political beliefs; the students’ stated political allegiance breaks down like so:

Conservative: 16%
Moderate: 24%
Liberal: 48%
Radical: 6%

Not sure what “radical” is trying to catch, but there it is. Is it strange that all these budding economists are “liberal”? In my experience, not really, and in any case, the stereotypical right-wing markets-crazy economist is actually not one with actual basis. Believe it or not, devotees of the “economic method” are not necessarily fiscal conservatives, for example.

More relevant to the issue of what economists do is the question of what the students believe helps people succeed in grad school: a full 67% said “having a thorough knowledge of the economy” was unimportant, which I would wholeheartedly agree with. In courses at the undergraduate level, I was exposed to plenty of history, of the subject and of the world, and plenty of policy debates; at the graduate level, math. And statistics.

The closed shop isn’t much interested in policy debate. It’s not necessarily the job of academic economics to do these things, but I can attest that it makes most graduate-level courses as much fun as a slap to the head. We dive down the rabbit-hole of the literature of our chosen field, but lose whatever tenuous grasp on reality we once had.

An interesting side-effect of this infatuation with what other economists have written (even at the expense of what other economists have thought) and of the closed shop is that PhD theses are interchangeable. Everyone’s doing pretty much the same thing, geared towards the ubiquitous “job market paper” that is supposed to prove to the union bosses how good you’ll be at publishing papers like theirs. It’s either a theoretical paper that looks like other theoretical papers, or an empirical paper that looks like other empirical papers.

I don’t know how much this is true of other disciplines, but I often feel that very little of what we research is question-led, which also kills a big chunk of the chance to be daring or creative. There’s not a lot of big-picture, big-idea, thesis-for-its-own-sake intellectual masturbation going on – and I do mean that as a criticism. Colander’s survey shows our diversity; do we really all want to produce the same work? Can there be more than one way to do good science, good economics? What made us want to become economists? What happened to the questions we wanted to ask? Graduate students: this might be our last chance to ask them.

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