Saving Economics from Economists

Words by Pallavi Bichu
06 September 2017

If you’re a layman, asking you the question “What is Economics?” is likely to elicit a
response that includes the words money, economy, wealth, GDP or something similar. It
might be followed by a series of vague hand gestures as you tell me that the “economy is
very bad.” After all, it doesn’t matter when I ask this question– the economy is always very
bad. Some amount of hemming and hawing is guaranteed as you tell me you never quite
understood it formally, and you WILL end by saying economists are a bunch of liars who
clearly don’t know anything. After all, why couldn’t they predict the recession, and if they
did, why didn’t they stop it?

If you’re an undergraduate student, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as you embark upon your
crusade– a noble one, to save the world; a more practical one, to make a lot of money, or somewhere inbetween – your answer (hopefully) will differ. You might tell me in your best “I know this and so should you” voice, that economics is the study of decision-making under conditions of scarcity.

You’ll bandy around terms like demand- supply, rationality and efficiency, and some of you
might even say that it doesn’t actually have anything to do with money per se. It’s a deeper,
more psychological study of human choice, of why we do what we do, and how best to do
it. You’ll quote all the greats– Adam Smith, Keynes, Nash, Arrow. After all, you must uphold
the integrity of your exalted field, or at least sell yourself as an employable asset in the
event that I am a recruiter, because economists love playing games.

Finally, if you’re a graduate student, asking you this question most probably will be met by a
response along a spectrum that ranges from a stony silence and a steely gaze into the far
away distance as you remember a simpler time, to you bursting into tears and clawing your
hair out. You’ll rack your brains to explain why you have spent the years you have in school,
to make sense of all the equations and code you’ve spent hours poring over, and to
communicate to an outsider how the field functions. If you’re anything like me, in the end,
you’ll shrug a cynical shrug and tell me– “Damned if I know.”

I am a Masters student in Economics at a prestigious university in the United States, widely
considered to be the greatest country in the world as far as Economics is concerned. The
largest number of economic think tanks in the world, the largest number of universities in
the top rankings of economics schools in the world, the most papers published in the field, and
the largest number of economics PhDs churned out every year. If you’re in academia, or have any connection to it, you know that economics is pretty much the holy grail of the social sciences, especially in the US. Economists in the US are an elite club. Name dropping is key to getting in, and publishing is key to staying in. A sort of academic mafia, if you will. A graduate degree from anywhere other than the top twenty schools has no worth in mainstream academia, unless you’ve chanced upon a Nobel Prize- winning idea, and you probably still need a top-20 graduate to sell it to the rest of them. If you want to work outside academia, you’re in better shape. You’ll start with a handsome salary, and provided you’ve mastered a few programming languages and econometric software, you’ll be respected and well- settled in no time. There is value in an economics graduate degree in the outside world, mostly because it’s scared of numbers and complicated jargon, and you’ve made that your comfort zone. Yet, as a privileged insider and now disillusioned onlooker of this spectacle for a few years, I’m here to tell you something. A public service announcement, if you will. I hope you’re all ready and sitting down for this, because it might come as a shock to you: Economists have been fooling you for decades now. There is nothing they do that cannot be done equally well by someone qualified in any other social science. There is no “economic” way of looking at the world, at least not one you need to spend time, money and years of your life on in school. It’s all a pretty big conspiracy, and I’m here to uncover it.

Alright, maybe I’m being a little bit dramatic. I’m sure there’s going to be more than a few
disgruntled classmates, and possibly a few irate professors as well who are shaking their
heads at the rebel inmate. My average grades in graduate school and lack of aforementioned
connections/ Nobel- Prize winning ideas potentially mar me as just another graduate
student who couldn’t “excel” because she couldn’t play by the “rules”. The rules that state
that maths is the language of economics, that stata data should replace the subject it
represents as the prime reason for my existence, and that the outsider must never know
how economics really works. The rules that bar everyone but us from truly understanding the
business section of the newspaper, and the rules that convert us into miserable data-
crunchers who lose sight of that fact that we were once the idealistic undergrads who
wanted to save the world (by this point, if you were of the money loving inclination, you
wouldn’t be reading this, as it wouldn’t be an efficient use of your time).

Note, not all economists are as soulless. No no, that won’t do at all. I have been fortunate
enough to attend the classes of some of the most passionate individuals, who care about
the world and of applying what they’re teaching to trying to make us see the world going up
in flames around us through a new lens. They’ve touched minds and hearts, but I won’t say
it’s solely because they are economists. The best of them are lovers of literature, armchair
(or active) political commentators, scientific enquirers and analysts of the human psyche.
Their understanding transcends beyond the mindless data-mining that the field has evolved
into. They use their training as means to an end, and not ends in themselves. This end is
simple, and it harks back to the goal of the idealist undergrad– not necessarily to save the
world, but to understand it. To ask the questions that matter, to answer the questions no
one is asking, and to never lose sight of what their profession is meant to do– shape minds
that will shape the future. They are demigods in a sea of confusion and convoluted math-
trickery, for they have somehow waded through all the rubbish to arrive at the essence of
economics. They are… the super-economists.

So, why aren’t there more of them in a country that seems to value economics as much as a
dying man in a desert values water? What dark forces of nature attack students and
teachers of economics somewhere along the way to ensure that only a select few really
attain this status? One answer has to do with the lack of a formal definition of the scope of
economics, and therefore of its goal. This apparent looseness of structure is both the field’s
greatest strength and weakness. Very few undergraduate schools truly prepare students for
graduate study, because they do not teach them the how’s, preferring instead to focus on
the why’s. Indeed, I think of this as a failed reverse education. Undergraduates who are smart
enough to find out how much maths is required in graduate school have an edge in that they
might go on to take advanced math courses and thus ensure they do not contemplate
suicide at the end of the first semester of graduate school during finals. The others, like me,
spend time with the demand and supply graph, that mistress of economics that teaches young virgins the ways of the world. They take a myriad preliminary and “intermediate”
courses in Micro, Macro, Finance, Political Science, Philosophy and the like, and become
involved with the world around them. They are economists by the end of undergraduate
school, and they don’t know it, because the world tells them they aren’t. If they don’t go
onto to graduate school, they probably end up switching to a field like Marketing or Finance,
or something else that has a rigid structure and a clear idea of what its profession entails.
They will do well there, because they are truly intelligent beings who have the desire to
excel. It’s why they sat through mind-numbing lectures on business cycles and policy
analysis classes, on figuring out the difference between stock and flow variables and on
writing papers requiring them to exercise critical thinking. I did this in my undergrad, and I
did it well. I loved economics, in the form that was taught then, and considered myself part
of the elite, armed with a constant holier-than- thou look and a myriad economic jargon. I had
stepped into the golden pool, and was on my way to attaining economic nirvana. Graduate
school was the logical next step, where I would spend more time analyzing economic
phenomena and learning how best to formulate and evaluate policy, financial outcomes,
human behavior and the like.

Needless to say, that hasn’t happened yet, as I end the first year of my two year Masters
program, I find myself at a crossroads, being forced to abandon a field I thought would aid me to make the world a better place, and trying to find greener pastures. What I have seen so far, is a three course meal of complicated calculus served with a dollop of economics. It’s a quantitatively rigorous course with little to no analytical discussion. I have had exactly zero classes discussing what’s happening in the world around me, and believe me, in 2017, there is A LOT happening. I have struggled with maths and econometrics with my fellow classmates, slowly being brainwashed into believing we are doing all this for a greater good, never knowing what it is.

We can solve difficult equations and prove many a theorem; but open a newspaper and ask
us to comment on the happenings of the day using training from the classroom, and we
might just have a stroke on the spot. We have slowly changed career goals, branching out
into other fields we feel we might have a little more of a say in, as opposed to being mini
computers being fed data and told to manipulate it. We have come to accept mediocre
grades and have started loving the all-important grading curve, mainly for purposes of
academic survival. We are hapless, lost and alone. We are the graduate students.

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