Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Economics and economists

For a very long time, I've held a dim view of economics as a "science" and economists in general. It's funny, because I had never taken an economics course. Not in five years as an undergraduate; nor the two extra years I stayed at my alma mater picking up my MA in math. This, in spite of the fact that I had become quite interested in voting theory1.

Not only had I never taken any econ courses, I knew precious few economics majors and almost never talked to them about economics. Off the top of my head, I can remember only one - a fellow who shared a first name, a fencing hobby, and for the first half of his freshman year, an intended physics major with me. He was doing badly in physics and so dropped down into economics because it was easier.

What I did know is what I read about economics and economists. I was familiar that the justification for right-wing economic policies - including a number that seemed to fly in the face of countervailing empirical evidence, such as the old Reaganomic rattle about tax cuts stimulating growth2.

I read biting critiques of economists by philosophers and Richard Feynman. I even read articles by economists trying to demand more respect for their field, but remained totally unimpressed. I did not study economics, and from what I saw, economics was not even a science.

I also thought that economics education seemed to be all about learning how to agree with standard doctrines3. The handful of different approaches to economics, Wikipedia and other sources informed me, were hostile to each other as schools of thought and mainly differentiated by choosing the appropriate sorts of assumptions to back up a particular political faction4.

I knew there was actually some pretty cool stuff in economics - some neat results here and there - but I dismissed economics. I've been frequently heard to declare that economists aren't scientists, but bad mathematicians attempting to do philosophy.

And now?

So instead of trying for a doctorate in physics or pure mathematics (I had funded offers for both), I decided to go California and get a doctorate in a cross-disciplinary institution. I'm still a math man at heart, but my funding comes through the school of social sciences, and in the last year and a half, I've had more interaction with economics, economists, and econ majors than in the rest of my life put together.

I TAed an econ course my first quarter here. I'm taking my first econ course this quarter. At least half the students in my research group come from an econ background.

So here's what I know now. There are economists who are scientists, good ones who believe in the scientific method every bit as much as Feynman did. They seem not to be a majority of the field, but they're actually testing theories of economics. The good ones are studying and applying psychology to understand why people act as they do and then explaining the collective irrationalities we seem to engage in.

Many economists are critical of economics and other economists. Econ graduate students and economists themselves are usually fairly bright. There are a lot of smart economists out there doing a lot of good work trying to figure things out.

While some econ majors are surely the immediate predecessors of the bright, smart, and motivated grad students I meet with on a weekly basis, most of them aren't. If anything, econ majors seem to be wholly different creatures on an entirely different plane of competence. They're terrified of the math that is necessary to get anywhere interesting, and seem to have relatively little understanding of the scientific method.

I'm not sure that my oft-repeated claim about bad mathematicians trying to do philosophy isn't true of the bulk of economists, or economics viewed as an academic field in practical terms. But now that I know some people with economics degrees sitting beside their names who don't fit neatly in that pigeonhole, the fun's gone out of saying it. It just seems like a cheap shot now.

1. It started when I as an undergraduate got to participate in a seminar field-testing this book. It's a field that's been largely populated with economists for the last half-century.
2. That one is a very hard sell for someone who started following the news in the early 90s, watched economic growth follow the Clinton tax hikes, and then watched the economy flatline during the Bush years after being "stimulated" by tax cuts.

3. I actually didn't get that notion from reading articles like that one. I got it from reading between the lines in articles written by economists trying to defend their field, and also from students who'd found economics courses disagreeable.
4. To this day, I believe this is how people who don't make a living in economics decide what school of economic thought is best - take the conclusions that they like and work backwards to justify the assumptions that school swears by. I suppose this may also be true of some economists.

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