Bryan Caplan  

Is Econ a Mickey Mouse Major?

Redistributing from Workers to... Art's Bet...
My intellectual conscience engages whenever I speak of "Mickey Mouse majors."  After all, many people see my own discipline - economics - as a prime example.  Are they wrong?

It depends.  There are at least four different senses of the "Mickey Mouse major" snub.

1. "Mickey Mouse majors" = Majors with low financial rewards.

2. "Mickey Mouse majors" = Majors that teach few job skills.

3. "Mickey Mouse majors" = Majors that address trivial or nonsensical questions.

4. "Mickey Mouse majors" = Majors that provide few solid answers to important questions.

Judged against standard #1, economics is clearly not a Mickey Mouse major.  Adjusting for preexisting ability, economics is one of the most lucrative majors - almost on par with electrical engineering.

Judged against standard #2, however, economics does poorly.  In my experience, undergraduate econ majors learn only two skills they're likely to use in any job outside the Ivory Tower: (a) how to calculate a present discounted value, and (b) basic statistics.  Except in top schools, I doubt most econ majors master either (a) or (b).  The remainder of the economics curriculum simply isn't vocational.

Judged against standard #3, economics does fairly well.  While we do have silly mathematical  theorists and picayune empiricists, they're a minority.  Most economists now do empirical work on fairly important questions about human behavior and public policy.  

Judged against standard #4, economics again does fairly well.  Any halfway decent Intro Econ class is a revelation to a thoughtful undergraduate.  Even macroeconomics has a long list of truths to teach, though macro pedagogy is exceptionally poor.

Overall, then, I feel pretty good about the economics discipline.  Yes, if human capital extremism were true, economics would be a sordid game of bait-and-switch.  Since most education is just signaling, however, our graduates usually get the well-paid jobs they've come to expect.  Along the way, we expose our students to some important questions and compelling answers.  Economics professors certainly have a lot of room for improvement, but we could be doing far worse.

Afterthought: Do any majors really deserve the Mickey Mouse stigma in all my senses of the word?  History qualifies by standards #1 and 2, but not #3 or 4.  Philosophy qualifies by standards #1, 2, and 4, but not 3.  I suspect that "identity politics" majors - such as ethnic studies, gender studies, and theology - are indeed Mickey Mouse majors in all four senses.  In all honesty, though, I'm so skeptical about the merits of these fields that I've never acquired enough concrete information to confirm or refute my skepticism.

COMMENTS (36 to date)
Rohan writes:

I think you are missing the 'difficulty' aspect of majors. A Mickey Mouse major is objectively easier than other majors that cover the same skills.

If economics is compared to mathematics or engineering, then it is a Mickey Mouse major because getting an econ degree is easier than getting a mathematics degree.

To put it another way, people who find pure math too difficult switch to economics, not the other way around.

Finch writes:

I suspect most people just aren't controlling for preexisting ability when they call it Mickey Mouse. They're just thinking about what kind of student is smart. They're thinking about things like how to make decisions on major conditional on how smart you are. The control seems important in a more sophisticated evaluation. But they aren't using your definition exactly.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Re the macro side of #4: I was reminded of this Russ Roberts post from last Friday.

NZ writes:

Rohan is correct, I think. The archetypal Mickey Mouse major, communications, earns that classification because it is so easy.

Mark Michael writes:

I always thought a Mickey Mouse course was a sluff course. Get a good grade with little or no effort. An example would be one an athlete would take to get the credit hours he/she needs w/o taking up too much precious practice time on the athletic field - and his "real" job: bringing in the alumnae cash and sports pages headlines.

RPLong writes:

I agree with Rohan. I studied economics (undergrad only), and tacked on a mathematics minor in my final two semesters. To this day, I regret not getting a pure math or stats degree instead of my econ degree. Should the spirit ever move me toward grad school, I will not choose economics a second time.

egd writes:

Rohan writes:

If economics is compared to mathematics or engineering, then it is a Mickey Mouse major because getting an econ degree is easier than getting a mathematics degree.

Comparing economics to engineering is probably inappropriate. Jobs available for math majors are reasonably equivalent to jobs available for econ majors.

But I think there is little overlap between jobs for engineering grads and jobs for econ grads.

I would gauge whether a degree is "Mickey Mouse" based on the job applicability and difficulty of the coursework. Philosophy may be a difficult degree, but there are not a lot of jobs available in that field. Civil engineering has a lot of job applicability, but is a fairly easy course load.

Rohan writes:

"Comparing economics to engineering is probably inappropriate. Jobs available for math majors are reasonably equivalent to jobs available for econ majors."

I don't think it's about jobs, but about the skill sets of the students involved.

If a student is in Major A, finds it too difficult, and is at risk of failing out, what major will she switch to?

For example, a computer engineering student might drop down to computer science. A comp sci student might drop down to economics. An economics student might drop down to history. And so on.

Mark Michael writes:

As a non-economist, a question occurred to me after reading this post. First, a preamble. It's my understanding that economics is (crudely speaking - I'm a non-economist) the study of the methods for the allocating scarce resources. They cluster into two broad categories: (1) either bottom-up individual-oriented "laissez-faire," Adam Smith "invisible hand," Scottish Enlightenment category or (2) top-down command allocation by a small # of expert elite using the coercive powers of government.

My question: Is category 1, laissez-faire economics the same thing as using the Scientific Method? As an electrical engineer who had drummed into him from day one in college to make sure any theory I cooked up was backed up by experimental measurements. I saw the quote on several EE's desks: "One of life's greatest tragedies is when a beautiful theory is murdered by a brutal gang of facts."

I was told to remember that whenever I was tempted to adopt a theory without verifying it actually worked in practice. My suspicion is that Keynesian macroeconomics doesn't follow the Scientific Method.

JLV writes:

Just to push back a little on skills, learning to use statistical software/basic data analysis skills (e.g. Stata/R/SAS) is something that everyone who takes an undergraduate metrics sequence should get. These are certainly skills employers want, no?

Foobarista writes:

On your test (2), virtually every non-professional major is "mickey mouse", including math, physics, biology, etc. You learn little that is directly relevant to the vast majority of work environments in these majors. So, I don't think (2) is particularly useful as a test.

I'd stick to difficulty of coursework, and no need for sequencing in coursework as a good test for a "mickey mouse" field. If a major's fourth-year courses don't require prerequisites or just an introductory course or two, how much skill and knowledge is actually being accumulated in the major?

Someone from the other side writes:

@JLV: You would think so but ultimately, there is probably not that big a number of jobs where you really need that level of stats capabilities (though with the advent of big data it may be increasing) - more often than not, data quality just isn't there to do throw advanced stats at the data, in my experience. And once you start with nifty techniques to account for data insufficiencies, you lose all your audience (and quite possibly, fail to satisfy one of the obscure prerequisites that technique X has)

Econ is definitely easier than Engineering or CompSci (I tried both, hated CompSci with passion) - if only because sometimes you get away with less than accurate predictions because no matter what, you can never account for all the variables anyway. Econ is however by far a more useful framework to look at the world than any of the STEM fields.

Bostonian writes:

I wonder if the marginal benefit (in terms of knowledge gained) of courses in some majors declines more quickly than in others. Bright accounting majors have told me that it does not take four years to learn accounting, but you can certainly take four years of physics courses without exhausting the subject. Maybe STEM majors should be encouraged to take a few courses in economics, accounting, and statistics rather switching majors.

Studies of college graduate earnings as a function of courses taken rather than major would be interesting.

In my experience, undergraduate econ majors learn only two skills they're likely to use in any job outside the Ivory Tower: (a) how to calculate a present discounted value, and (b) basic statistics.
That's clearly ridiculous. I use things I learned from econ texts all the time in business. Too often to be able to easily count them.

Inventory control, pricing, purchasing, buy v. lease capital items, cash flow management, time value of money, organizational efficiencies, sunk cost fallacy, taxation....

Economics is just a special case of human decision making (the kinds of decisions the consequences of which you can usually measure in dollars). Whether to wake up and shower when the alarm goes off the first time, or hit the snooze button for another five minutes sleep is a cost/benefit issue. As is just about everything you have to choose during the rest of your day.

han meng writes:

I happen to agree with you that ethnic studies and gender studies are indeed Mickey Mouse majors in all four senses, but those who teach them believe (or seem to believe) that they address important questions and provide solid answers to them.

But given all the trouble religion causes, or the important role it plays in life, it seems odd to dismiss theology as addressing trivial or nonsensical questions and providing few solid answers to important questions.

BTW, aren't #3 and #4 pretty much the same thing?

Phil writes:

By the criterion of, "how much does the subject teach you that's useful in real life," Economics wins. In fact, it laps the closest competition.

The basic principles of Economics -- which I wasn't taught in Micro 101, which is the only Econ class I took -- explain the entire world! Well, I exaggerate, but not by much. Before I started reading popular econ books -- the first principles ones, Landsburg, Sowell, Hazlitt -- things seemed arbitrary and unexplainable. With the first principles, everything makes sense.


Of course, that doesn't necessarily speak to Econ as a major. The first principles could -- and should -- be taught in high school, and then college Econ becomes a bit Mickey Mouse in that the hard problems don't really yield to econometrics.

My dream of how to spend a billion dollars for the common good -- if I were Warren Buffett -- is to give $200 to every 14-year-old who can prove he understands the economic way of thinking. My gut says that would be a very good investment, even if the $200 were a deadweight loss instead of a transfer.

han meng writes:
tms writes:

As an undergrad econ major, I learned marginal analysis, the concept of opportunity costs, and how to perform data analysis, including regression analysis, and I use all of those skills regularly in my job.

egd writes:
If a student is in Major A, finds it too difficult, and is at risk of failing out, what major will she switch to?

For example, a computer engineering student might drop down to computer science. A comp sci student might drop down to economics. An economics student might drop down to history. And so on.

Could be. I didn't know any Engineering students that switched to Economics, nor did I know any Economics majors who switched to Engineering.

Generally if you couldn't cut it in Engineering it was because of the math. So you either switched to Civil Engineering or Business.

Steve Sailer writes:

I triple majored at Rice in 1976-1980. The work load in economics was considerably lower than in history or "management studies" (i.e., business). The work load was vastly lower in economics than in the engineering majors that many of my roommates took. However, econ was a moderately prestigious major since the two introductory courses taken by many non-econ majors were the most difficult required to get a degree, so nobody besides econ majors realized how it easy it got once you got the hang of the concepts introduced in Econ 101 and Econ 102.

I believe, however, that Rice has since added some econometric courses as requirements for econ majors.

drobviousso writes:

egd - Apropos of nothing, my brother switched from comp sci to econ. He wasn't having trouble with the math, he just preferred econ.

Steve Sailer writes:

A generation ago at Rice, the basic requirement to succeed as an econ major was to learn to think like an economist. I was pretty good at that by a few weeks into Econ 101, so the eight courses that followed turned out to be pretty easy for me because they were just applying the basic conceptual tools to, say, antitrust law or whatever the higher level courses were nominally about. Lots of students, though, found Econ 101 daunting and assumed that Econ 387 therefore had to be incredibly hard.

MingoV writes:

I went to college in the 1970s. We had Mickey Mouse courses and Mickey Mouse majors. Mickey Mouse courses were easy to define: No useful substance and the weakest students could get an A. A Mickey Mouse major required little effort to get a good grade, and the resultant BA degree had little practical value. Mickey Mouse majors vary by school. At mine, the MM majors were sociology, social work, graphic arts (printing), and Fine Arts. Biology almost made the cut, but it was moderately difficult.

At my school engineering was a tough major (only one-third of entering students got a BS in engineering). Most of the failing students switched to business admin or business management. With no changes in their drinking, partying, or studying habits, they got 4.0 GPAs.

Mike C. writes:

No one has challenged the view that "identity politics" majors are mickey mouse in all respects?

Maybe the provide few job skills and don't lead to high paying jobs. But you think they address trivial or nonsensical questions? They provide few solid answers to important questions?

I was pretty dismissive of these majors as well until I started to look more into critical theories while in law school. The fact is that the questions are very important and the answers people have given are very interesting.

For example, I now take it as a given that social norms (including language) evolve in a way that tends to protect the status of the "ruling classes", which for us is generally white male Christians. Others can achieve success, but they still have to swim against the current.

I also think there is a lot of overlap between these theories and economic. Many of them originated as offshoots as marxism, but that doesn't necessarily mean we should dismiss them offhand. Shouldn't be totally dismissive of marxism either, I suppose.

jason braswell writes:

As a philosophy and math major, I'd stick up for philosophy as measured by #2. I think my phil major really honed my writing skills. Although, it really depends on the department, so YMMV.

Mark writes:

I believe you're incorrect in your assessment. Your number two is countered by the number 3 in this discussion of the fastest growing careers. If economics is not about understanding and analyzing markets and marke behavior, then we're bereft of any subject matter.

Steve Sailer writes:

Majoring in econ signals "I like money, but I'm not some prole who majors in business. I know how to signal.

Lance writes:

For the student at a school outside the top 10/25 of undergraduate institutions with little interest for further study, economics is probably a poor choice compared to a similar field, like finance. Economics paired with something else might signal a broad array of interests, which an employer will look favorably upon.

But, a lot of middling business schools or Arts & Sciences Department do not put much rigor into their economics program. They may produce people capable of the 'economic way of thinking', but the student may find himself in a profession where the salary is not that great compared to a decision to pursue a finance degree.

For example, all the examples Patrick pointed out as beneficial to his professional career are always covered in a basic corporate finance course.

There's certainly a lot of non-monetary benefits econ students may accrue which will maximize lifetime utility, but that's no different than the dedicated english student or the dedicated sociology student.

Peter writes:

A CPA told me that economists were people that did not have enough personality to be accountants. I have always enjoyed being around both.

aretae writes:

Rohan nailed it.
#3 is the alternate meaning. Underwater basket-weaving, archetypical joke major, is not necessarily easy, but it's silly. At the same time, I don't think it would usually be called mickey mouse like Communications often is.

Compared to other majors at non-ivies, applied technical majors are hardest: Engineering...Then less applied technical majors: Math/Physics. Then anything else where 200-level courses require that you understand calculus. Then anything else. At the bottom, education.

At the ivies, this isn't necessarily true? Even English Lit can be a hard major. But outside the ivies, there's a monster difference between a humanities or social science major and a "freshman or high school calculus or you won't understand _anything_ we do"-major

blink writes:

Like many other commenters, I think the difficulty is key. That is, does the major at least function as a signal? For "identity" majors and probably education and psychology as well, the answer is no. The market test (#1) matters most.

Unlearningecon writes:

@Mark Michael

Considering you are an electrical engineer it is a shame you have been misinformed. In fact, the Keynesian multiplier (though probably not first developed by Keynes) is one of the most clear, falsifiable propositions in economics.

Obviously, estimates vary - especially depending on which fiscal expansion program you are talking about - but a good account is given by Mark Zandi, who finds the multiplier is generally lower for high income tax cuts and higher for money given to the poorest, something that's intuitively appealing as the poor spend more of their income.

Anyway: I'm not here to debate the multiplier specifically. I just want to show you that 'Keynesian economics' follows the scientific method. Certainly more so than many other areas of economics.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Krugman on math:
"A colleague once explained to me that the optimal amount of math for an economist to know is always, of course, exactly the amount of math you personally happen to know — anyone who knows less just doesn’t have the tools, anyone who knows more is excessively teched up. Hey, I think the kids these days are taught way too much math. Also, they should get off my lawn."

Trespassers W writes:
Do any majors really deserve the Mickey Mouse stigma in all my senses of the word?

Disney Studies.

I believe that's game, set and match.

...all the examples Patrick pointed out as beneficial to his professional career are always covered in a basic corporate finance course.
Actually, as Gautam Kaul of the U of Michigan, in his online course on finance says, 'economics is the mother discipline of finance.'
William Thomson writes:

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