Is economics vocational?

Being that we have not the faintest idea why people choose to take economics courses, this will be a difficult question to answer: is economics vocational? What exactly would an economics education prepare you for?

My stereotypical economics major wants to be an investment banker or something of the sort (again, pure prejudice, since no evidence exists). I argued a while ago that maybe – maybe – the sub-discipline of finance could possibly be considered vocational for those types. Economics courses will be of no practical help, although I suppose the civics that passes for Econ 101 might help with terminology. My advice: go to a school that will let you major in business.

So: what would an economics education prepare you for? To be more explicit: “if I major in economics, what will I be able to do, or be better at, that I couldn’t otherwise have done, or done so well?” Some suggestions, and justifications.

Statistician or data analyst. Econometrics is usually a requirement for all economics majors. Since the computing revolution, economists have lovingly embraced statistical analysis as a way to coax the relationships in the real world out of data. Theoretical and practical data preparation and analysis will be practiced in econometrics courses, and any course falling under the foul name of “applied economics”.

Policy wonk. Economics can inform argument and debate about policy. This is especially true of economics courses that straddle positivist analysis and normative debate, such as public economics. The purely esoteric economics courses might not be the ideal ones to make this point.

Philosopher. Economics contains a lot of points of philosophical debate. “Welfare economics”, which tries to discuss and provide metrics for normative goal-setting, is a particularly rich field for flights of fancy. The realness of economics does not take it out of the philosophical world; it’s elusiveness holds it in.

Applied mathematician. I’m very doubtful about this one, but here it is anyway. Economics can’t teach you math. Plus, economists are like the chimps jumping up and down to reach the fruit when we could just ask the giraffe – it feels like any mathematical or technical problem we have would be immeasurably simpler for a mathematician or computer scientist to solve than it is for the economist. Nevertheless, it may well be the case that studying economics could make a person better at applying mathematical methods to the tangible.

Academic economist. Our courses are taught with the same positivist motivation demanded in the research conducted by academic economists. The “applied” courses accomplish this for the type of researcher who does data work, and the theoretical courses accomplish it for the type of researcher who does, well, theory work. I’m worried by the lack of diversity in the models and applications we present – it doesn’t reflect the range and power of economics – but nevertheless, the method we present is, for better or worse, the same as the method we use.

Historian / person-of-the-world. No idea what I should be calling this, but an economics education should (should) include some history of thought and history of economic policy. One of my favorite college courses was one where we took one simple, flexible model of a country’s economy – really simple, just pictures and words – and used it to debate the economic history of the 20th century. Whatever that type of knowledge-for-its-own-sake is called or is useful for, I’m throwing it in this list.

I’ve kind of exhausted my ideas. Now, at least here in American colleges – or maybe just this American college, though I suspect not – “academic economist” gets far, far, far, far too much play. Far more than anything else on my list or anything else that could be on the list. I would be utterly astonished if the non-existent evidence on why people take economics courses showed that they all wanted to do write academic articles in economics. Astonished and miserable. Yet, here we are, in a situation where economics courses are most commonly run without philosophy, history, politics, debate.

Academics do economic science in a vacuum without these things. It has to be that way, because we want to isolate facts as well as we can isolate them. That doesn’t mean that we should be teaching economics that way. It could be so rich. Yes, the science can be interesting, but so can the history of the world, the intellectual foundations of the discipline, the policy debate built on the evidence. I’d hate to think we’re robbing our students of these things.

Perhaps the answer, then, is that economics is not fundamentally vocational. Aside from my pet issue of economics-abused-as-civics, we have a problem with economics teaching if it is trying to pretend to prepare people for something specific. It can surely help a person develop skills, but at least as important, and probably more interesting for the average student, is teaching economics as an intellectual pursuit for its own sake. We know what would make our courses more interesting (not the same thing as pandering, I hasten to add), more intellectually exciting, yet we pull back. Is it because we believe we’re training all our students to be academics?

Simplify, simplify

I might just go ahead and quote myself:

“One of the principles of writing economic theory is to create a simplified abstraction of reality.”

This is from an article by Russell Jacoby in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The world is complicated, but how did “complication” turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn’t scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?”

This is quite clearly not an article about economics (phew). It goes to show how very, very different we’ve become from the other social sciences and arts. Yesterday I was talking about the development lab at MIT; would they say, “Ah, there’s a million and one things that affect the quality of education. I’m going for a drink.”? Of course not. Economics seeks to expose in the simplest possible terms the relationships around us. Indeed, the world is complicated; that’s why the MIT lab has to perform randomized trials to isolate the effects of programs. It’s why theorists create little models of the world.

Contrast this with this characterization from Jacoby:

“The refashioning of “complicate” derives from many sources…. [acaemics] will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to “problematize,” “contextualize,” “relativize,” “particularize,” and “complexify.””

In economics we want to know: what you’re saying, why you’re right, and what could make you wrong. That’s about it. One of the most valuable consequences of treating economics as a science is that we parachuted out of this borderline nonsense:

“They will denounce anything that appears “binary.” They will see “multiplicities” everywhere. They will add “s” to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like “pluralistic,” “heterogenous,” “elastic,” and “hybridities.” A call for “coherence” will arrest the discussion. Isn’t that “reductionist”?”

This explains a big part of the schism between positive economics and other social sciences; we are OK with leaving some things out if it helps. When it comes to the policy debate and the normative questions, we have to throw all the other stuff back in, but “it depends” is a conclusion acceptable in positive economic research only if you can tell me exactly how and why it depends.

Jacoby has the neat sign-off:

“The cult of complication has led — to alter a phrase of Hegel’s — to a fog in which all cows are gray.”

In economics, our judgment cows are gray, but our scientific cows are black and white.