David R. Henderson  

The Tragedy of Economath

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Co-blogger Bryan has done an admirable job of critiquing "economath" here and here.

What follows from his critique is what I call "the tragedy of economath." Over my 30+ years of teaching mainly Masters students, I come across really good students who "get the economics bug." They see the power of economics to explain things in the world and they often finding economics dramatically changing their view of the world: which policies are good, which economic actors are the villains and which are the heroes, etc.

A substantial fraction of those students--say 15%--say they would love to go on and get a Ph.D. in economics and teach. Given that they are Masters students who can get the GI Bill after they retire, such a strategy is highly plausible. Except for one little detail. It's often expressed as follows: "I can't hack the math." It's not that they're typically mathematically illiterate. The most advanced math tool I use in class is algebra and the students I'm talking about have little or no problem with algebra. It's just that many of them have looked a little into Ph.D. programs and they know that what is required in those programs goes way beyond algebra.

That means that we're missing having a substantial number of people like that as future colleagues and teachers. And who replaces them? In many cases, people who have much less understanding of economics but who are good at math. This is a tragedy.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
EclectEcon writes:

Absolutely right. The school where I taught most of my career was proud that it was admitting physics, math, and engineering undergrads to its programme. The problem was, these folks generally had zero understanding of the basic economic way of thinking and were disasters as TAs.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

The prominence of math highlights the profound difference between a necessary and a sufficient condition. Some level of logical rigor is necessary in an argument, and when an argument is amenable to explicit formalism it can clarify. Yet, 'modeling' per se is not sufficient for generating greater understanding of economics.

Axel Liejonhufvud lampooned this in a 1970's essay, 'Life Among the Econ.'

On the other hand, if we weren't lost in excessive formalism, might we be no better than sociology? They haven't exactly bested us, and it's a comparable endeavor.

Michael Strobl writes:

Professor Henderson, I won't comment on your "econmath" point other than to say I agree completely with you.

Rather, I can't resist mentioning that I am one of those former Naval Postgraduate School students (class of '01) who caught the "econ bug" in the classrooms of Monterey and went on to use my GI Bill to get a Ph.D. at GMU.

By the way, I survived the econmath of the Ph.D. program mostly by brute force and memorization. The bug I acquired at NPS was too strong to be snuffed out by the bug repellent that is econmath.

Hazel Meade writes:

Meh. I'm not inclined to think the world needs more economists with poor math skills.

Michael Strobl writes:

Hazel, perhaps you're right.

I'm inclined, however, to think the world could use a few more people who understand the points and the nuances of works such as Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society" or Read's "I, Pencil" or Bastiat's Broken Window Fallacy, or...even a great Bryan Caplan lecture.

I have found that none of those require meritorious math skills. I have also found that all are incredibly affecting to one's world view.

If we're going to talk about great economists who aren't known for their math, we have to include Ronald Coase.

RPLong writes:

Setting financial economics aside, do any graduate-level economics courses require more than linear algebra? I don't think linear algebra is too much to ask of economics PhD students.

GM writes:

I recall talking to a fellow who was a student in a Ph.D. program in economics who thought that it would be relatively easy to get through it knowing little economics but a lot of math, but nearly impossible for someone who knew economics but was not well-versed in math.

I agree wholeheartedly, GM. Our program at Auburn required a lot of math, but the profs were not obsessed with it. As long as we could do the basics of model creating using multi-variable calculus, as well as showing some advanced knowledge of econometrics, we were fine.

Unfortunately, the use of math as THE explanatory tool in the more "elite" programs has triggered the problem of every program wanting to be math-oriented so it will be seen as "rigorous." To be honest, understanding the nuances of real economics is rigorous, but most academic economists don't see it in that way.

Anon writes:

To the above two commenters: It's true that you could maybe get through a PhD knowing a lot of math and not a lot of economics. But that doesn't mean these people have any success. Time after time, the stars from the new PhD graduate pool are those who demonstrate both technical skills AND economic insight. Of course there's a lot of junk at the bottom of the spectrum, but you can say that about any discipline.

And frankly, I'd rather my discipline be filled with dull, overly-technical people than people overly confident about their so-called 'intuition,' who usually turn their classes into political soapboxes.

Also, it's much, much easier to catch people up on the economics than on the technical skills. Try teaching basiic statistics to resistant undergrads and tell me how it goes.

Krishna writes:

May be both sides have valid assertions. Yet, math makes it easier to understand economic phenomena to a certain extent

Dominik writes:

@RPLong: Microeconomic courses will typically require quite a bit more than linear algebra. Some understanding of real analysis is usually needed, as are the beginnings of topology. More importantly, enough mathematical maturity to follow the formal theory development and proofs is a must - and that's not something easily acquired. General equilibrium theory uses rather hard mathematics (implicit function theorem, separating hyperplanes, some measure theory) and without a solid probability background much of game theory is hard to grasp.

In the whole discussion the term "economics" seems to not mean micro (and I think if so one should throw in the word macro a bit more often); but passing an MWG-based course is a requirement for a PhD at most universities.

Gordon writes:

I think the problem with most college math professors is that they've forgotten how to relate mathematics back to the real world. Therefore, when they teach mathematics, their explanations are all in abstract concepts that people have trouble grasping. If certain disciplines such as economics require understanding of advanced mathematics, then why not have mathematics courses geared for economics rather than sending students to general mathematics courses?

(If you doubt that mathematics professors have this difficulty, look at the problem that so many of them had understanding the Monty Hall brainteaser with the two goats and the car. And back in my college days, I was having dinner with my math professors who were stumped by a physics brain teaser. Most of them spent the night trying to come up with the right algebraic formulas to solve something which only needed some simple multiplication to answer.)

Foobarista writes:

They read the Foundation books and dream to be psychohistorians, just like Paul Krugman.

Anon writes:

By the way, David, just because they "have the economics bug," and want to get PhDs, doesn't mean they would actually be good economists. I appreciate art, and I'd love to be an artist, but that doesn't mean I'd actually be any good as one.

Michael writes:

Economath, every policy has social consequences, but there is no way to measure the pure loss of liberty. So, omit liberty and assume till your heart is content.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Every economist knows the main purpose of economath is to limit the competition for economics professorships. Things could be worse; economics Ph.D. programs could have followed literature, sociology, and so-on into the swamps of ever more involuted and preposterous pseudophilosophical writing.

The long-run cure for economath would be reduced subsidy to higher ed in America.

koenfucius writes:

Perhaps the problem does not so much lie with the skills that newly-hatched economists possess, but the beliefs to which they adhere. The belief that economics is all about mathematical laws, correlations and models is much more attractive to "mathematical" economists than to "intuitive" ones. From this belief, it is tempting to conclude that reality does not conform to the theory (yet, but just give it some time, it will, I am sure!)—a variant on "the world is out of step with me".

With the mindset that models are illuminating, but not a true reflection of reality (to paraphrase John Kay), good math skills can be exceedingly helpful in gaining insight and understanding. Without it, they most likely stand in the way of it.

Tom Lee writes:

The same thing is true in meteorology the field I went into. Some of the required advanced math helps some graduate-level meteorologists, but much does not. What's really missing is training in communication: writing and especially speaking in front of audiences.

David Friedman writes:

My daughter spent two years at Oberlin then transferred to Chicago. She was considering majoring in econ, which she had enjoyed at Oberlin (unlike much of the rest of her Oberlin experience)--she also has a footnote in one of my articles for a significant issue she pointed out to me.

After taking one econ course at Chicago she decided on her alternative major, Italian, since she liked economics, didn't particularly like math, and concluded that the courses were more math than economics.

I corresponded on the subject with a U of C professor I think highly of, who also had a daughter in the college. He agreed with my daughter's judgement of the program. So did the instructor at Chicago who taught some of the intro courses, including one my son took and greatly enjoyed.

I've long claimed that the one advantage I get from having a doctorate in theoretical physics is that I can do non-mathematical economics without being accused of being afraid of math.

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