Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Hamermesh on Colander's 'Redux'

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, July 25, 2008 | Category: , , , , |

ResearchBlogging.orgDavid Colander has been a critic of economic education and the core of (Walrasian) economics for some time. In his (2005) article, 'The Making of an Economist: Redux' he looks at the state of economics education: the experiences and beliefs of graduate students and the thoughts of economics professors and professionals. The article has recently been expanded into a book, it is this book which is the subject of Daniel Hamermesh's review in the recent Journal of Economic Literature.

My comment here is intended to be a fairly informal comment on the review, with additional references to my experiences as a current economics graduate student, though admittedly I am not being educated in the United States.

First, a summary of some of Colander's main points (from the paper, not the book - I could not access the book):
  • Microeconomics in the core course is viewed as a hazing ritual.
  • Consequently, there seems to be more self-selection into economics programs than previously (when Colander wrote his original book in 1987).
  • Colander believes there are fewer idiot savants than previously.
  • Macroeconomics is basically applied micro, and should be turned into an elective.
  • The movement away from arcane modeling is good.
  • The emphasis on empirical work is good, but there isn't yet sufficient practical work for grad students.
  • There should be more history of economic thought in economics programs - students don't read anything before their own grad course started (possibly a bit of hyperbole going on here).
  • The '3rd year black hole' problem - the kids don't know what to do. Should the teach? Should they find practical work? Should they be an RA? Can they write papers yet? How?
  • There isn't necessarily a correlation between core coursework success and success professionally.
  • Students are stressed and lots, to all (too much?) of their time is spent on economics.
  • How is the creativity of students being nurtured?
Hamermesh gives a couple of his own points on the above:
  • Yes, there is two sided selection as a consequence of micro hazing.
  • Yes, macro is basically applied micro, it should no longer be core.
  • No, there are not fewer idiot savants.
  • The movement from arcane modelling is ambiguous. Empirically it has occurred, but it seems as though arcane micro has been replaced with arcane identifying strategies in econometrics. Is this necessarily good?
  • Yes, economic history would be a sentimentally beautiful thing to have back, but do the students really need it? Does it help to get them to the research frontier? Probably not.
  • Yes, economics students are stressed, but why are we concerned about how much time students spend on economics, in order to be a good economist (rather than consultant or policy-maker), economics should always be your default: the holding pattern of your brain should be 'economics'. Economics graduate school is not about producing happiness, but producing education.
  • Creativity and motivation are the two strongest determinants of professional success.

They both bring up particularly relevant points. I know that the point form above is a somewhat egregious violation of what constitutes 'peer reviewing', so many apologies. My intention is to take the two articles and facilitate some form of discussion on the subject. Nevertheless, Hamermesh's review brings up relevant views. Firstly, Colander uses a substantial amount of self-referencing in the book (both to his 1987 book and to his own research on economics education). This is probably due to the idiosyncratic nature of the text and his intepretations of the interviews that he conducts. Secondly, he is not interpreting 'data', but several interviews taken from a sample of 231 students who answered questionnaires and supplied their email addresses. This is far from exhausitve. Though we may wish to criticise his method, it seems as though Colander's is the most comprehensive study that can be found looking at these issues in depth.

Having recently undergone the painful application of the first year of an economics PhD to my vulnerable mind, I can offer a couple of insights. My school is somewhat odd, as we have a seminar course in economic history during the final quarter of the year, but we nevertheless undertake the customary worship of Mascollel, Winston and Greene's Microeconomic Theory. The course was rigorous, though we occasionally delved into other more inscrutable aspects of the grounding of microeconomics because of an eccentric professor. I would have probably preferred a more 'reason-based' Chicago-style approach. Nevertheless, most of us came out the other side. Macroeconomics, on the other hand, though we had a fabulous teacher was, as Colander asserts and Hamermesh agrees, simply applied micro + dynamic programming/optimal control. I don't understand why it is a core course. Econometrics was part theory and part applied. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

However, this is where one criticism comes up for me, for both of the articles. When they discuss 'applied work', what they mean is taking a data set and working with it in order to write a paper. This does not, in any way, prepare you for doing field work or, say, experiments in the lab, both of which are common practice in economics. Luckily (or unluckily) for me, before I came to grad school (I am a 27 - relatively old, if been informed, for a grad school student) I worked for the South African Labour Development Research Unit on a project for government as an assistant manager of a survey. This involved jetting around South Africa, interacting with government officials, going to interview sites, tracking down random pieces of paper in dodgy old buildings, greeting people in languages I did not speak adequately well (rudimentary Xhosa does not equal Zulu) and all-round stuff that an economics PhD does not (as far as I have experienced) prepare you for. I flew by the seat of my pants: getting up at 4am to drive for hours in the mist of rural KwaZulu-Natal
to get to the next field site I had to check, or getting lost somewhere
in Mmabatho, or trying to ensure that the me and the fieldworkers were on the same page on what 'random' really means (no, it's not just going into the closest hut to see if someone's there). It's the learning that goes on in committees, dealing with bureacracy, running projects, working for volunteer programs and NGOs. It's the learning that almost de facto cannot occur in lectures facilitated by professors. Maybe I am being cynical here, but I would have appreciated it if this had been covered in Hamermesh's commentary, and Colander's original article. I don't know if the expectation is that fieldwork is simply something that peon's do for the professorial great men, but with examples like Chris Udry, Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, Ted Miguel, Michael Kremer, John List and all kinds of people at the top US schools, you can't help but think that this (field work) is something that does go on and that requires its own enculturation and education.

As a last point, I find that I learn substantial amounts through the time that I dedicate to blogging, reading blogs and ensuring that I keep (somewhat) up to date with peer-reviewed research. As a consequence my grades take a (bit of a) hit, I do not do as well as other students who spend more of their time studying course material (actually this is often correlated with my interest, some good & some bad marks occur). However, my opinion (concordant I hope with the 'living economics' Hamermesh comment) is that my knowledge is broader and my understanding greater as a consequence. Hopefully it pays off (John Hawks's methods willing).

Colander, D. (2005). The Making of an Economist Redux. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1), 175-198. DOI: 10.1257/0895330053147976

Hamermesh, D.S. (2008). . Journal of Economic Literature, 46(2), 407-411. DOI: 10.1257/jel.46.2.407

Currently have 1 comments:

  1. Great piece, sounds like the real world has immunised you pretty well against mainstream economics.

    My opinion, for what it's worth, is that the history of economic thought - including now apparently defunct macroeconomics - is vital to economic understanding.

    The central issues of capitalist economics - growth, business cycles, innovation, monopoly power, distribution - just aren't adequately dealt with by neoclassical micro.

    I get this conviction from Joseph Schumpeter, especially Part II of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, and from Keynes. I think Edward Nell has got the synthesis right in his brilliant theory of Transformational Growth.