Mathematical Hazing: Protecting Economists From Competition

Arnold Kling, in his much acclaimed TCS article this week, touches on an idea I wrote about last April.

The most distinctive trend in economic research over the past hundred years has been the increased use of mathematics. In the wake of Paul Samuelson's (Nobel 1970) Ph.D dissertation, published in 1948, calculus became a requirement for anyone wishing to obtain an economics degree. By 1980, every serious graduate student was expected to be able to understand the work of Kenneth Arrow (Nobel 1972) and Gerard Debreu (Nobel 1983), which required mathematics several semesters beyond first-year calculus.

Today, the "theory sequence" at most top-tier graduate schools in economics is controlled by math bigots. As a result, it is impossible to survive as an economics graduate student with a math background that is less than that of an undergraduate math major. In fact, I have heard that at this year's American Economic Association meetings, at a seminar on graduate education one professor quite proudly said that he ignored prospective students' grades in economics courses, because their math proficiency was the key predictor of their ability to pass the coursework required to obtain an advanced degree.

The raising of the mathematical bar in graduate schools over the past several decades has driven many intelligent men and women (perhaps women especially) to pursue other fields. The graduate training process filters out students who might contribute from a perspective of anthropology, biology, psychology, history, or even intense curiosity about economic issues. Instead, the top graduate schools behave as if their goal were to produce a sort of idiot-savant, capable of appreciating and adding to the mathematical contributions of other idiot-savants, but not necessarily possessed of any interest in or ability to comprehend the world to which an economist ought to pay attention.

Kling concludes:

In higher education, no well-known university or college has gone out of business in my memory. Over this same period, countless corporate giants have bitten the dust. To me, this says that the incumbent protection racket in higher education works really well. There is hardly any entry, and hardly any exit. No surprise, then, that dousing this sector with subsidies leads primarily to inflation.

One of the best incumbent-protection rackets going today is for mathematical theorists in economics departments. The top departments will not certify someone as being qualified to have an advanced degree without first subjecting the student to the most rigorous mathematical economic theory. The rationale for this is reminiscent of fraternity hazing. "We went through it, so should they."

Mathematical hazing persists even though there are signs that the prestige of math is on the decline within the profession. The important Clark Medal, awarded to the most accomplished American economist under the age of 40, has not gone to a mathematical theorist since 1989.

These hazing rituals can have real consequences. In medicine, the controversial tradition of long work hours for medical residents has come under scrutiny over the last few years. In economics, mathematical hazing is not causing immediate harm to medical patients. But it probably is working to the long-term detriment of the profession.

Compare to what I wrote last April:

Economists love to talk about how licensing for doctors and lawyers is a form of monopoly power: doctors and lawyers don’t need to be licensed to protect consumers as much as they need to be licensed to protect their own wages. By making it more difficult for people to become and remain doctors and lawyers, these two groups shield themselves from further competition, and by reducing the supply of labor, they increase their own wages.

But then I started thinking: if this is true for doctors and lawyers, shouldn’t it be true for other highly educated fields as well? Why should economists be immune from their own criticism? Perhaps the continued use of complex mathematics and econometrics even in the face of mediocre results is the method by which economists make it more difficult for the marginal student to enter the field, thereby protecting themselves from further competition. Further, this protects economists from competition with other social scientists, like sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and philosophers, who do not need and do not have the mathematical background necessary to decipher and challenge the work done by economists.

Luckily, places like George Mason University (where Kling recently began teaching) are bucking the widespread tread of "mathematical hazing," and are instead focusing more on the constantly changing, never static market process, and incorporating important insights from Austrian economics. Let's hope this new trend continues.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Kling's article nicely demonstrates a point I've been trying to make to Catallarchy's own Jonathan Wilde on two different marketing strategies for blogs. Follow below the fold for more...

I argued:

Being that this is a blog all about spontaneous order and decentralization, I much prefer the massive small-blog linkage to the centralized instalanches. Even if the Instalanch produces more overall visits, something just feels right about the bottom-up approach. I think its the fact that seeing links on multiple blogs reinforces to readers that this is a post/blog worth reading, whereas with Instapundit, there is no additional reinforcement.

Jonathan responded:

I don't think this is a valid argument. Remember, the blogosphere is a "scale-free network" (like most social networks), and as a result, it obeys power laws. This means that the 'hubs' (large nodes) in the network have many, many, many, many more connections than smaller nodes. If you look at the truth laid bear traffic rankings you can see that the top blog, Instapundit, gets 160,000 visits/day whereas the 100th blog, Command Post, gets 4,200 visits/day. Keep in mind that there are about 8 million blogs in existence (and growing), which means that most blogs probably get less than 5 visits a day. So getting a lanche from the #1 blog will be 40x more powerful than getting a lanche from the 100th blog. IOW, we would need 40 separate lanches from the Command Post to equal a single Instalanche. And the Command Post is about twice as often visited as Agitator.

So while Agitatorlanches are good, an Instalanche is about 80x better. And while decentralized links from small blogs are good, they don't come close to centralized Instalanches. It's not just that Insty is bigger; he's many, many, many, many magnitudes bigger.

My rejoinder:

Even if all of your analysis is right, it still seems to ignore the important issue: our concern is not so much on increasing the number of hits we get but on increasing the number of regular readers. I don't think Instapundit is a great way to attract regular readers, because he posts so many links per day that readers don't really have time to judge each of the blogs he links to as worthy of regular reading. Whereas, when I see multiple blogs I read on a regular basis all link to the same new blog, I am much more likely to give that blog a chance at regular reading. Multiple mentions breeds familiarity, which breeds return customers. This is basic marketing psychology. Better to bombard consumers with lots of small hints than smack them over the head with a single big one.

I originally saw a link to Kling's article in Trent McBride's ‘Round the ‘Sphere post yesterday, but since my time was limited, I didn't click on the link. But then I saw the same enthusiastic recommendation to read the article on Jacob Lyles' blog. With two different recommendations, I had to finally give in and read it. I'm glad I did. Consider this your third recommendation.

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Mathematical hazing is

Mathematical hazing is directly responsible for the elimination of at least one »

This is why I have no plans

This is why I have no plans to go to grad school (to study econ, anyway).

Economics and Mathematical

Economics and Mathematical White-Out
Kling's thesis -- that mathematics "blanks out" too much real-world economic phenomena -- is hardly limited to the uppermost echelons of graduate programs. I'm willing to bet you encountered it in your freshman economics courses.

Wild guess what might happen

Wild guess what might happen in such circumstances -
people would start doing mathless econ, but call it something else -
like anthropology or sociology or praxiology or systems analysis.

Known Unknowns Well, this

Known Unknowns
Well, this post is a bit of a stretch, I know, but all I can say is that there is a direct and negative relationship between the amount of work I have and the quality of my posting. Still and all, I think this article at New Scientist is interesting en...