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?

Why don’t we understand economics education?

Increasingly preoccupying my thoughts recently is the remarkable fact that the economics profession doesn’t really know anything about how undergraduate courses are received by the students who take them.

Unquestionably, the most common type of research into undergraduate education is the type like this, this, or this (sorry to link to protected academic articles): teaching methods. The semi-famous series by William Becker and Michael Watts derides “chalk and talk” in favor of more creative methods of lecturing. In “Teaching Economics at the Start of the 21st Century: Still Chalk-and-Talk”, those authors conclude:

“In contrast to the passive learning environment that characterizes the teaching of economics, class discussion and other forms of active learning, rather than extensive lecturing, are now the dominant forms of instruction in other fields of higher education.”

I agree in principle that it’s no fun to try to learn – really learn – any subject by sitting in a lecture, but goodness me, “active learning”? How about “devote some time to reading a variety of books and material on the subject you’re learning”? How about “sit down with colleagues or experts and talk and listen”? In my life, those have been the most effective ways of getting information and understanding into my head. Am I alone? To me, that’s active learning, and it doesn’t require fancy technology or a three ring circus, just a good library and good educators with time to devote to small groups of students. Lectures, especially to large classes, must naturally be presented without a lot of nuance.

The cult of the classroom experiment, or demonstration, or performance art, or audience participation, is not, however, the real issue. By far the bigger problem is that we have no idea – repeat, no idea – what students want, expect or get from economics courses. Why do they enroll? Why don’t they enroll? Why do they drop out? Why do they major in economics? What do they think economics is about, before, during, after they take economics course? What if they never do? Who do we lose?

Why don’t we have the first idea about the answers to those questions? Have we ever asked? The mind boggles. We’re try to patch up the wreckage of the lecture system, when all the while we might be sailing to entirely the wrong place in our leaky boat. Forget the method for a moment – what are we even actually teaching?

In a separate article to the one I quoted up above, William Becker’s “Teaching Economics in the 21st Century” says:

“Media headlines scream the need to understand macroeconomics. At a minimum, courses in macroeconomics should enable students to have a greater understanding of the economic news as it appears in the Economist, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal than those without an education in economics.”

I’ve covered this ground before. How about, at a minimum, we teach economics properly? How about, at a minimum, we kick civics into a course where it belongs and actually show students what economics can be, and what it is? Compromising the integrity of an entire field of hundreds of years of intellectual thought with political, philosophical and moral implications so that people can understand the Wall Street Journal? Who wants to understand the Wall Street Journal?! From the same article:

“Departments of economics have two powerful reasons to care about improving the quality of their teaching. First, the contest for resources within institutions of higher education implies that the number of majors and enrollments matter…. Whether students will take more courses in economics or choose to major in the field because of improved teaching is hard to say, but, at least, improved teaching is unlikely to hurt enrollments!”

Hilarious, I’m sure. I’m kidding: it’s sickening. Can we entertain the notion that perhaps higher enrollments are not compatible with improved teaching? We are supposed to be running an institute of excellence in learning and thought. Whoring for enrollment is disgusting.

Economic literacy, or how we squashed dissent

My heart smiles on veterinarians today:

“Popular misconceptions

Economics is commonly viewed as being focussed on money. This notion has been reinforced in veterinary medicine…”

A quotation, apparently, from “Veterinary Epidemiology” by Michael Thrusfield, that I stumbled upon while prowling for some evidence on what we’re doing to economics students.

A large chunk of the evidence on that subject comes from formal economics articles ridiculing the population’s incompetence. This one actually asks students some questions testing so-called “economic literacy” (who sets monetary policy in America, what are profits for, what happens to export if the dollar increases in value (yawn)) and this one has some suggestions on how to promote it.

I’ll put aside my skepticism that knowing, for example, the difference between fiscal and monetary policy is important to a person. The questions that aren’t purely civic literacy are boring and/or irrelevant; more dangerously, the promotion of “economic literacy” in an introductory economics course represents another challenge to the correct perception of what economics actually is. If we make civics the goal of introductory economics courses, we lose any semblance of teaching “principles”, and slide further into pretending that economics will offer the technocratic “answer” to your every question.

As if to reinforce this fear of mine, the questionnaire article finishes up by trying to convince me that

“…economic knowledge has a direct and substantive effect on opinions about economic issues”

That’s seems reasonable, until the example:

“An opinion question asked: If the supply of oil was reduced by a crisis in the Middle East, do you think the United States government should prohibit oil companies from raising oil and gasoline prices?

Over four in ten college seniors were opposed to allowing the oil companies to raise prices, hardly a strong endorsement of competitive markets…. what college seniors know about economics directly affects their acceptance of a market result.”

Where do I begin? What breathtaking arrogance it must take to assume one has the unimpeachable answer to an “opinion question”. What a sad revelation of the true failure of economics teaching it is to equate “economic literacy” with “a strong endorsement of competitive markets”. Worse than sad, it’s infuriating. When this passes – in the supposedly prestigious American Economic Review, no less – I am entirely unsurprised that students who take economics courses answer “opinion” questions differently than other students. Our economics courses are dogmatic and pass opinion and ideology as scientific fact.

This isn’t political: I hold my own beliefs, as anyone is entitled to. Perhaps “economic literacy” would help people decide what they believe. That’s the difference between “I’m not sure would happen if we tried to move to socialized health care” and “I think I have a reasonable idea of what might happen if we tried to move to socialized health care”. I’d be thrilled if we could help someone answer that question.

What my profession seems to be pushing is instead the difference between “I don’t believe that the market mechanism is always best” and “I believe that the market mechanism is always best”. Is it possible that “economic literacy” could change my mind? Of course it’s possible; that doesn’t mean that it will, or that it should. There’s a very fine line between wishing for economic literacy and wishing that people believed what you believe, and crossing it is unacceptable.

Of course it would be great if we all knew a bit more about how the institutions that control our resources operate. Keep it out of my “principles of economics”. If you care so deeply, make everyone take a course called “how economic policy works in the United States”. Don’t pollute my discipline with your sleight of hand. If suppression of debate, and sacrificing the chance to teach economics without ideology attached are the price of “economic literacy”, it’s a price far too high.

Now that I’ve gone off the deep end, I should point out the classic survey of public versus economists, the “Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy” which is actually pretty interesting. The (comparatively) reasonable “Straight Talk About Economic Literacy” (pdf) by Bran Caplan is a nice (but long) article that talks about the survey and asks why the responses diverge.

Is it too late to enroll in veterinary school?