How much economics should you study in college? (Or why economics is like a martial art)

One of my development-oriented students writes:

I have already taken intro micro and macroeconomics and statistics for political science. I am considering intermediate microeconomics this semester, but have heard mixed opinions on whether it will actually be useful or not, and could really use a second opinion.

My personal experience: economic theory courses are a little like karate.

After a course or two you might get your yellow belt, but basically you have just been going though the motions and learning some basics.

(I used to say to my students, “It’s like learning wax on, wax off,” but apparently aging references to a movie that predates their birth is a bad teaching strategy that elicits only blank stares.)

Anyways, with your yellow belt, you’re a little more flexible and you have a sense whether you like the art, but if someone jumped you in an alley you would probably be worse off than before you took the class.

Your karate classes will pay off slowly, with time and practice. You might get your green or brown belt eventually, and this will serve you well in life. For most of you. For others, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and you will run around looking for a fight, sometimes clobbering an innocent, and basically simply miss the big picture.

Stick at it awhile longer, and you might get your black belt, some perspective and some discipline. It takes a while for this to pay off, however, and very soon diminishing returns set in, unless you happen to want to run your own dojo.

In case it’s not obvious, intro to microeconomics is the yellow belt, and intermediate micro is the green at best. An undergraduate degree in economics is a brown and an MA is arguably the black. And if you want your dojo or jedi master status then get a PhD or go into investment finance.

And of course the ass who runs around looking for a fight is the ideologically left or right jerk who manages to turn a conversation about the weather into a diatribe about free trade.

(In college I was actually just such an ideological ass–I won’t tell you what side of the spectrum but leave you to guess. Glad to say it was just a phase.)

This lumpy, nonlinear learning pattern is fundamentally different than the other social sciences, or even bits of applied economics like history or development. The accumulation of knowledge, and your ability to use it, is much more linear there. You learn something and you can see quickly how it fits into your view of the world. You talk about a problem differently after just a few books.

You can still be dangerous. The difference is lumpiness. To add a second metaphor, in my experience your brain needs to marinate in economics for a while before you deeply get it.

Some might take this as a warning not to embark on economics. I disagree. I think a serious student of any social science interested in applying their skills in the real world–including development workers and diplomats–ought to seek a degree of mastery in political science, statistics and economics, and dabble in things anthropological, post-modern, or historical to stop them from having asinine views.

I think economic learning could be more linear and less lumpy if undergraduate courses were taught with fascinating problems first and theories supporting them, rather than theories for the sake of theories. Good instructors do this, and you will find them everywhere, but maybe less at top research universities where the instructor sometimes leans towards generating future PhDs over informed citizens. Or maybe they just want to get back to their research. So find the dedicated instructors.

Of course, you might do well to ask someone who has actually taught undergraduate micro. I TA’d intro and intermediate macro for several years, as a PhD, under superior professors, and saw the benefits. But the textbooks available often get good instructors off on the wrong foot right away.

For related academic advice that is actually informed by experience and expertise, see the development and academic advice on the right sidebar.

23 thoughts on “How much economics should you study in college? (Or why economics is like a martial art)

  1. I actually disagree. I agree that the learning process in economics is _very_ lumpy but I tend to think that intro macro and micro are two of the most useful courses one can take. Not everyone will be able (or compelled) to dedicate more time than that to the study of economics but the important, powerful basic ideas are conveyed in these two courses. Intermediate micro and macro, in my opinion and experience (but it could be different elsewhere), are the same courses over again with just more math and formality instead of intuitive reasoning. My advice is to take the two intro courses and another one or two topical economics courses that interest you and just make a promise to yourself that you’ll be critical and not run around being a lefty or rightwing nutjob.

  2. The intellectually curious and the wise will always be so, whether they have much economics training or not. Similarly, there will always be idiots out there – even if they have a “black belt” in economics. Economics mastery is no guarantee of wise decisionmaking or insightfulness. Indeed, economics mastery may be problematic. I majored in econ as an undergrad and it took several years of postgraduate studies in political economy and politics to unlearn some of the more confounding aspects of the economic method (e.g. the ceteris paribus assumption). In any case, given that folks have very different aptitudes, spending years attempting to master modelling and statistics hardly seems like the most efficient use of one’s time if one’s talents like elsewhere (e.g. linguistics, history). I think Holger is right here in that intermediate micro/macro is a decent base for most people. At the same time, anthropology, sociology, and history shouldn’t be seen as fluffy additions to a hardcore of economics, but similarly at the core of a good social science education.

  3. The marinating of ideas is sometimes more important than purely getting the logic. Physics 1st year students experience that rather strongly with relativity or quantum physics. You only develop some kind of intuition about the subject after having chewed on it for a long time.

  4. I think the issue is less the lumpiness of economics education and more the huge gap between theory and being able to see a result for oneself. Science has similar gaps between understanding basic concepts and being able to conceptualize and really think about what they mean. Still you can take many basic science theories, put students in a class lab or a research lab and let them directly test and observe the relationship between theory and reality.
    The large data sets that support most respected economic theories and the work that was involved in collecting the data can’t easily be translated to introductory classes. Econ professors are left teaching theory and, at best, handwaving through the data analyses that actually explain why some economic models are thrown away and other remain. It’s only when students finally get enough math/stats in the intermediate and advanced classes that teachers can go beyond handwaving the connection between theories & data.

  5. THANK YOU. As an MA student at a top IR school studying economics, I am STRUGGLING. This is great encouragement. Sometimes I question whether or not I can really cut it as an economics students with such terrible professors. When I finally understand the concepts, it is so fulfilling, but it really is a challenge. If only my professors saw the benefits of teaching “fascinating problems first and theories supporting them, rather than theories for the sake of theories.” In any case, thanks again for the encouragement. I am probably destined for a PhD in cultural anthropology, but I see economics as key. Hopefully it will come to me the longer I “marinate” in it. Marie.

  6. For those of us who found the advice sidebar a little too late: How does one make up for a lack of hard econ and statistics in undergrad? A BA in International Development at UCLA required only one macro course and a handful of statistics courses, so I’ve found I’m severely lacking the econ cred that most grad programs require as well as the technical expertise desired by most research positions.

  7. Marinade is definitely the metaphor for me. I felt like I was taught essentially the same thing in Micro/Macro during Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, and Year 4, but only in Year 4 did the penny really drop that OMG THAT THEORY IS AMAZING.

  8. You are right that the textbooks emphasize models rather than problems. I teach economics to government students, and I have ended up using the first chapter (supply and demand) of Steve Landsburg’s text, which has a little application, and then just lots of handouts. Very frustrating.

  9. I tend to regard micro as largely pointless, (at least for ordinary people) unless you’re actually interested in being an economics professor, and doing research. Seems to me the only stuff you can actually try on for size and experiment with to any degree, is macro.

    Though yes, marinating is essential, it wasn’t until I’d been reading about this stuff for 8-10 years that any of it began to make sense. It really does help if you keep track of it daily, read the FT, the economist, get used to the faces and positions taken on Business TV, etc.

    But then again most people have lives and are doing this for career advancement rather than pleasure, If all you’re doing is a couple of courses then no wonder it doesn’t make sense, the same could be said for much of the current neo-classical cannon.

    Once you grasp it though, it does warp your thinking in strange ways, gives you insights you can’t really find elsewhere, (I’ve looked :) The implications can be “dismal” but if you thought that, you would probably have stopped studying already :)

  10. As a graduate student in economics I find your analogy quite insightful. Your belt grades seem about right: like a black belt, after three to four years full-time (with at least one at masters/PhD level) you’re finally getting to the point of being able to tackle a limited number of real world problems, albeit still simple ones, without getting a black eye in the process.

    Using this lens it’s quite obvious why students are asking the question about the usefulness of intermediate level economics (after all, if you need a black belt just to tackle elementary real world problems, what use is a green belt?)… Nonetheless In my opinion the marginal benefit of studying towards the “green belt” remains fairly high no matter what the student intends to do next, after all it is at this level that the student really starts to take away a solid sense of economic intuition along with learning the process of “thinking like an economist”.

    I think it is probably only at the following “brown belt” stage that the benefits start to accrue primarily to students intending to become professional economists (and therefore the question of usefulness or not, relative to other enrolment options, potentially trends negative for non-specialists).

    But there does seem to be a problem with expectations. After their second year of med school I very much doubt students are walking away thinking they can start conducting surgeries or consulting on heart transplant techniques. Yet this is exactly what I’ve experienced during my studies in economics – there’s often an expectation that with a “green belt” in hand one is now fully equipped to take on the full gamut of complex real world problems…

  11. It’s been said a zillion times that a little knowledge of economics is a dangerous thing. I think you would also notice that in the investment world economics PhD is less valued than other things (especially programming) so the road to “Jedi” may never enroll in a “Karate” class.

    But it’s also a truism that every college student should take 1 economics, 1 statistics, 1 accounting course. And yet the first economics and the first statistics course are awful. (1st stats course should be exploratory data analysis and residuals http://twitter.com/EdwardTufte/status/284036109426630656 not preparation to design a census)

    I went through a long time with a view like yours that “The real answers are going to come later. I’ll just be patient”. But actually that’s bulls***.

    If false or misleading lessons are being taught in econ 101 then it needs to be revised for the public good, in my unhumble opinion.

    (I was also fortunate enough to have ≥1 really excellent prof who made it very clear through examples what a model was. Did not hold back because “This is too complicated for you idiots”. However, I know people who came out more overconfident than enlightened and this includes people who go on to hold public office.)

  12. This an amazing blog. Browsing through the blog is like exploring more and more economics.
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  13. Hey so I’m in my senior year of high school and I’m considering in taking economic but kinda lost…how will it help me and what do you mean by it being lumpy? Is it interesting because it’s sounds intriguing.

  14. My advice is to take the two intro courses and another one or two topical economics courses that interest you and just make a promise to yourself that you’ll be critical and not run around being a lefty or rightwing nutjob.