Learning Economics

Arnold Kling has a nice article over at TCS plugging his new book and talking about the role of math in learning econ:

Mathematical constructs in economics have a similarly divisive effect. They make it easier for students with a gift for abstraction to grasp economic concepts firmly and quickly. However, they make it harder for everyone else. My sense is that even for the best students, mathematical constructs in economics tend to go into short-term memory. The really important lessons of economics can be forgotten, if they are even learned in the first place, in a class where students are graded on their ability to manipulate diagrams as opposed to their ability to apply economic reasoning.

Teaching economics is about teaching a set of intuitions that many people find difficult. For those who find abstract math difficult, adding it to the mix is not going to help.

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I've found that most of the

I've found that most of the math in my Econ classes was worse than useless- not only did it not help elucidate economic principles, it often actively obfuscated them. I'm mainly looking at my intermediate microeconomics class (the first of which I dropped because it was, in actuality, an advanced calculus class with precious little microecon to be found), but generally pushing around graph curves (usually straight lines, heh) required less economic thought and more specialized (and irrelevant) skill in manipulation.

Marshall (and Kling) is correct in that mathematics is useful only to the extent that it helps give a framework and shorthand for the user, and in no other sense. His whole "burn the mathematics" quip was, IIRC, a barb aimed at fellow economists who liked to hide behind formalism in lieu of being able to actually speak in a manner that made sense to people. Certainly a prescient barb as the folk at Marginal Revolution (as well as Kling in other posts) have remarked about the idiot-savant nature of PhD Economists, who can throw up equations left and right but can't tell you what it all means...

I don't think difficulty is

I don't think difficulty is the issue. It's just that economic understanding doesn't benefit most individuals much and economic misunderstanding doesn't cost them much. There are plenty of people who are quite competent in abstract reasoning when they have reason to be and yet don't track the simplest arguments in economics and politics.

I believe Patri was

I believe Patri was referring to students of economics rather than teaching economic principles and reasoning to laypeople. The average joe isn't going to care about a mathematical presentation of economics at all, so the argument about math in econ is pretty much restricted to those in or about to enter the field.

"I believe Patri was

"I believe Patri was referring to students of economics rather than teaching economic principles and reasoning to laypeople."

What I wrote applies to students of economics. The problem is not the difficulty of the material.

Economics students are

Economics students are pretty much like everyone else. There will be a handful who are predisposed to ground theory in reality (the epistemically rational) and they'll get it for the most part. The others (the instumentally rational) will at best sleepwalk through the material "manipulating diagrams" correctly.

There is very little to be done about this, I think about all you could do is grill the students mercilessly and whack 'em with a two-by-four every time you catch them sleepwalking. This will of course precipitate a mass exodus from the department, but you just might wake up a soul or two.

As someone who was a dozen

As someone who was a dozen credits away from earning a BA in Math, perhaps the perhaps people who can't hack the math should stay out of the field of economics?

As someone who did get a BA in (roughly) Economics, might I suggest that if you don't have the math, pick a different field? All the interesting economics, the really cutting edge stuff, the stuff the PhDs are trying to change the world with, contains advanced math.

I respectfully

I respectfully disagree.

Mathematical economics has a, to put it mildly, poor track record in either predicting reality or helping Economists to understand reality.

I think its a travesty that in order to succeed in PhD/Masters economics programs, students are being advised to *not* major in Econ but rather in Math or Statistics. That seems to be ass-backwards. You learn the theory first, then some tools.

BTW, I also have a BA in Economics. Development Economics & Comparative Economic systems were my bag.

Josh - I have a BS in Math,

Josh - I have a BS in Math, so be assured that this post is not rooted in math phobia. Math is a strong part of how I understand the world.

But I think its important to teach an intuitive understanding of economics, and I think for most people this will not involve huge amounts of math. You want to stimulate the "aha". Also, I don't see why all econ undergrads should have the skills required for an econ PhD.

And for what math is important, I think a good intuition for basic statistics is by far the most valuable.

Josh - I think economics is

Josh - I think economics is important enough that I would like more people to learn it than just math whizzes. I think there are plenty of things one can do with an Econ BA besides get an Econ PhD. So why should we restrict Econ BA's to only the mathematically inclined?

Does being a math whiz even

Does being a math whiz even help really? Do you find that math whizzes in general develop a sounder understanding of economics and politics than most people? I don't see much of a difference. Bertrand Russell was a commie for crying out loud.

I was just chatting with a guy the other day who is TAing a course in mathematics and politics. One of the first things the Prof did was to tell the students he hoped they were all registered to vote.

The prof may well be quite competent in math but he clearly still has insufficient incentive to ground political theory in reality.

JTK - my experience is that

JTK - my experience is that economic intuition (which is unfortunately rare) is much more important than math skills. I've had similar experiences as you with engineers. However, economic research is a pretty competitive field. Many of the insights which are possible with intuition alone have been plumbed out already. To have a comparative advantage, you may need the intuition *and* the math skills.

I'm not claiming that math skills make you good at econ. Only that they may be necessary to be great at it right now, when we've already had many brilliant economists solving the problems that were soluble with the tools they had. To solve more problems may take more tools.

I dunno, I kind of see it as

I dunno, I kind of see it as the reverse. We've had decades of brilliant minds using advanced mathematics to wring out insights on the economy and a great deal of ground has been covered and covered again by math. But the big insights now seem to be meta, which would be more "intuition" than formalized. Public Choice theory, for example, isn't mathematic at all, but that's a major jump forward. Kirzner's theory of the entrepreneur didn't require any mathematics to fill in the gaps of market processes.

OTOH, hard core policy type analysis probably requires hard core math and stats work, and thats a case where complaints about the accuracy or validity of the metrics (as an excuse not to engage in that level of mathematics) won't get you very far. Michael Stastny posted recently about income redistribution that had a (to me) horrific looking equation describing the model they used to figure out that the policy did not increase happiness. :dizzy: Maybe that's more statistics anyway, but its all still math.

I think there are some legitimate arguments with the methodology, but if you don't speak the language of wonks then your influence with them is limited.

"Iâ??m not claiming that

"Iâ??m not claiming that math skills make you good at econ. Only that they may be necessary to be great at it right now, when weâ??ve already had many brilliant economists solving the problems that were soluble with the tools they had. To solve more problems may take more tools."

I don't think being great at economics has much to do with how it's taught, which is what I thought the original post was about. I don't think better teaching methods will produce more great economists. I think great economists produce themsleves.

Kling: "I believe that

Kling: "I believe that economists have a right to feel that we have superior knowledge on issues of public policy. However, the implication of this is not that we should be given deference and power. Instead, I believe that economists have an obligation to explain our thinking to novices, and novices have an obligation to attempt to understand economics."

Obligation??? What is the benefit to the individual novice of understanding the economist on public policy?

Hell, even Kling doesn't get it and he's writing books on it.

JTK - I think some basic

JTK - I think some basic econ is beneficial for the individual. Not on the level of macro policy analysis.

As someone who was a dozen

As someone who was a dozen credits away from earning a BA in Math, perhaps the perhaps people who canâ??t hack the math should stay out of the field of economics?

My Dad can beat up your Dad!

As an economics grad

As an economics grad student, I can vouch for the field's focus on mathematics. I think that this is simply a consequence of the current, cutting-edge research. As Patri wrote:

Many of the insights which are possible with intuition alone have been plumbed out already. To have a comparative advantage, you may need the intuition and the math skills.

There are no methodology journals and the economic history/law journals are outnumbered 10:1 by those foucused on mathematics.

Interacting with my professors -- game theorists, statisticians, econometricians. etc -- I have come to realize that the intution(that Kling wants to concentrate on) is assumed and rarely taught. No longer are there economists like Hayek or Knight asking "big questions", instead, they spend all their research time testing that intuition. [Exceptions are perhaps the people at GMU and Douglass North at Wash U] They try to answer questions like: What tests do we use? How do we effectively aggregrate data? How can we model a complex situation? Etc..

The most shocking part of applying to graduate school was the lack of attention on writing skills. I recall that three of the universities to which I applied made statements of purpose "optional." This meant that there only way to judge you was GRE, course load and recs. Anyone who was a math major (me), knows that there are plenty of people who are very good at numbers (so look good on paper), but would be horrible economists and professors.

It isn't just a problem with

It isn't just a problem with learning economics, but also of doing it. My favorite example of that is Patri's dad. I've been trying to get him to move to Boston for years; but he'd probably have to find work at Sloan, which takes a too-mathematically oriented approach to the work it does for his liking. So he ended up at a place where he can focus on the arguments, and not on the number-crunching.