Arnold Kling  

David Colander on Graduate Study in Economics

The Economics of Recycling: A ... Government is not going away...

The book is The Making of an Economist, Redux. It provides facts, analysis, and opinions of the graduate programs at top economics departments. I'll excerpt a few sentences, and then I'll add my opinion of what I would like to see in graduate economic education.

on p. 3-4

Notice that I said "twenty of the top ten." The reason is that there are many different ranking systems...Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, MIT, Princeton, and Yale--are consistently ranked in the top ten.

on p. 15

economics changes not by revolution but by slow evolution. This reflects the continual exit of economists through retirement and the continual entrance of economists to replace them. In the fifteen years since the original "Making of an Economist" study, there has been about a 30 percent turnover

on p. 43

In the early 1980's, many students went into graduate economics study thinking that it would be like undergraduate school; today almost all students know better. In effect, students have been prescreened to be comfortable with the mathematics in the program. Similarly, graduate schools know better what they want and select students who are comfortable in the approach that will be taught.

on p. 46

the macro that is taught to the students in the core has lost touch with both policy and empirical evidence. Instead, students are presented with dynamic stochastic optimal control theory and Euler equations.

Robert Solow contributes a brief chapter. On p. 235, he says

I will just say that the macro community has perpetrated a rhetorical swindle on itself, and on its students. (Evidently some of the students realize this, but not their teachers!) If you pick up any "modern macro" paper, it tells you it will exhibit a "micro-founded" is, of course, the representative-agent, infinite-horizon, intertemporal-optimization-with-conventional-constraints is as if my diet consisted entirely of carrots, and, when asked why, I reply grandly that I am a vegetarian. Being a vegetarian is not excuse for choosing and, worse, promoting a ridiculously restricted menu

Back to Colander himself, on p. 240.

the core is primarily a selection and hazing device that insures that only highly analytical individuals become economists...The interchange of people with diverse views and methods is lost, and the result is intellectual inbreeding, with all the problems that inbreeding brings about.

I think that inbreeding is dictated by the structure of academia, at least in economics. There are more Ph. D's produced each year at top schools than there are job openings at top schools. On average, then, students get placed in lower-ranked economics departments than the ones in which they are trained, resulting in what I call Startz's Law. Almost thirty years ago, Dick Startz observed that, "The distribution of faculty quality across universities is more equal than you might think. The distribution of graduate student quality across universities is more unequal than you might think."

Suppose that you think of yourself as the "child" of the professor who signed your dissertation. Thus, I am Solow's "child." But I have not given Solow any grandchildren.

In order to have lots of grandchildren, you need to have lots of highly productive children. In order to have lots of highly productive children, it is necessary--and far from sufficient--to teach where there are lots of top-flight graduate students. Basically, if you are teaching anywhere other than Harvard, MIT, or Chicago, your chances of having lots of grandchildren are pretty low. I'll bet that if you added up all the grandchildren of all the professors who have not spent more than five years teaching in one of the 6 departments listed on p.4, they would add up to less than the number of Gary Becker's grandchildren.

The reason macro is in such a mess is that it's filled with the grandchildren of Bob Lucas and Stan Fischer. Lucas and Fischer are fine economists, but they overbred.

Another reason that macro does not work in grad school is that studying macro is like studying polio--the serious problem of long-term macroeconomic distress has been eradicated. As recently as when I was in graduate school, the problem of stagflation at least provide some motivation to do applied work. Until there is a major outbreak of inflation or prolonged recession, I think that macro ought to be a history of thought course.

If I could influence the graduate school curriculum (and clearly I cannot, given that I do not even have "children," much less "grandchildren"), I would do the following:

1. Require that students take a course for one quarter in "How to teach economics." This would include examples from popular books, classic economic fallacies, and so on. I would require this course, because (a) you learn something about a subject when you think about teaching it and (b) many economists do wind up teaching, and many of us believe that economics is important for citizens to learn. But I would not require more than one quarter, because I suspect that there are rapidly diminishing returns. By the way, I believe that Russ Roberts of Cafe Hayek offers a course of this sort at GMU.

2. Require that students take at least two semesters in an applied field. This might be health economics, environmental economics, development economics, or the economics of education, for example. The first semester should be spent in standard classroom format. The second semester should be spent writing a 40-page analytical paper under the supervision of a professor. The paper should provide a critical survey of the literature that relates to an important issue within the applied field.

3. In tenure decisions, put less emphasis on published journal articles and more emphasis on books as well as on shorter, unpublished work that presents interesting findings, raises important questions about published work, or simply points people toward interesting work. By no means should the weight on journal articles drop toward zero. But I want more Tyler Cowens and Bernie Saffrans. And more David Colanders.

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Kimmitt writes:

The first isn't really happening, but a variant on the second is very much what is taking place at the University of Hawai`i. I feel very fortunate to have the high quality of the education I've received there.

Tom S. writes:

Prof. Kling's comments are interesting, but I think some of Colander's problems mainly exist in the academic market structure. For instance, you're more likely to spawn children simply because you're a Big Five graduate. Whatever starts there will be quickly followed by lower-ranked schools just so they can get published. It's easier to go with the grain.

Secondly, has there been any real revolutions in economics in the Kuhnian sense?

Snark writes:


Secondly, has there been any real revolutions in economics in the Kuhnian sense?

I commented on this a while back, calling it The French Revolution II. It's more popularly known as the Post Autistic Economics (PAE) movement, started by French college students in 2000, who said they were disillusioned with neo-classical or "mainstream" economics. They even have their own quarterly review.

I'm not sure this movement qualifies as a new birth of freedom, but mainstream economics of, by, and for the people could parish from our universities as we know it.

GeorgeM writes:

My thoughts (PhD student in Tier II university):
- on the family tree: what would help is more upward mobility (like John List's rise from U Central Florida to U Chicago); such mobility appears to exist more in other disciplines
- on macro: my impression is they figure dynamic stochastic GE (opt ctrl) models are a vital toolkit whatever your Thesis, so calling it the "Macro" core is really a misnomer, it's more a sequence in dynamic programming methods
- on #1: they figure being a Teaching Assistant is all we need for that
- on #2: most students do applied work so I'm less worried about this, my friends doing Theory instead spend 2-3 semesters doing PhD Math/Op Res courses
- on #3: relying on citations might help if the cites start appearing early enough to count toward tenure (unlikely), otherwise, the usual problem is establishing quality of a monograph (how do they do it in Polit Sci or Sociology?)

ZH writes:

This post brought to mind that the field of economics needs something similar to The Mathematics Genealogy Project.

Barkley Rosser writes:

David Colander is always very pungent and perspicacious in his observations about economic grad education. I am usually in sympathy with his views, although this might be expected from someone who is his sometimes coauthor.

Regarding this post, I happen to support having more teaching of history of thought. Unfortunately, as the GMU lunch crowd can attest, the trend is very much the other way, with what had been the leading center of history of economics, Duke University, all but shutting down their program in this area for grad study.

I also agree that more weight should be given to books (monographs) than is currently. I have heard it said that in some places writing a book may be viewed negatively (and certainly writing a textbook is, which is presumably its own reward, especially if it is at all successful).

An extreme example involves a place where the views are from those of this blog, although Arnold and Bryan might have sympathy for these folks. I am speaking of the heterodox econ department at the Notre Dame, which had its grad program taken away from it and handed to a completely conventional, newly created department. Among those protesting this were Deirdre McCloskey and also Solow, who publicly declared that "what we do not need is another fourth rate MIT program in the US" (or maybe it was only "third rate"). This was driven by the dean wanting a "highly ranked" department according to measures of citations of journal articles, and the existing department was dominated by people writing books, some of them very influential and important, especially in the history of economics, notably Philip Mirowski and his _More Heat than Light_ and _Machine Dreams_, both highly controversial and influential, but very heterodox.

As a final comment I note that there is some trend towards focusing on applied economics and specific empirical issues. In a sense, _Freakonomics_ and the Clark award for Levitt was a manifestation of that, although this year's Clark award winner is much more in the formal theoretical mode, Susan Athey of Harvard.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Uh, I meant to say that the views of the folks at Notre Dame are "far from" those of folks on this blog, as the department is pretty left-wing in its politics (the editor of Rethinking Marxism, David Ruccio, is in the department). However, I note that fairly libertarian Deirdre McCloskey, was among the department's defenders.

dearieme writes:

"has there been any real revolutions in economics in the Kuhnian sense?" Yes, what reason can you give us not to assume that you are all just writing footnotes to Smith?

Econ Skeptic writes:

The most important thing is to let the educated public know that economics as practiced today isn't a science, and the academic profession itself has become something on the order of a scholastic guild, almost professionally incapable of worrying much about whether it is producing sound explanations or good science.

Before the house of economics can be put back in order it's likely that the elite professors controlling the profession will first have to become something like a laughing stock in the eyes of the scientific community -- and among the general educated public. This is already largely true in the case of the scientific community (e.g. a recent quote from a Nobel winner in chemistry comes to mind), and I see the trend continuing in the wider intellectual community.

Colander's work is a valuable contribution in this larger context, even if in the short term his efforts will have zero influence among the current economic elite.

PrestoPundit writes:

"has there been any real revolutions in economics in the Kuhnian sense?"

Hayek's work moved economics from a world of logical givens and non-marginalist assumptions to a fully "individualist" explanatory system where unique entrepreneurial learners in a context of changing relative prices provided the causal explanatory "variable". In a sense it was a second "Kuhnian" revolution completing Menger's original marginalist revolution but extended into the fields of comparative economics, monetary theory, and distribution theory. A Kuhnian revolution developed in the teeth of the Marshall / Keynes counter-revolution against Menger's original marginalist / subjectivist revolution.

Unfortunately the counter-revolution crushed the Menger / Hayek revolution and, well, here we are with the profession described by Colander.

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