While economics has some serious flaws, I’m not saying it’s useless; I’m just saying that an undergraduate degree in economics is. I hope my journey through collegiate level economics can provide those considering a degree in it some insight.
I, like many others my age, originally came to love economics after reading the book Freakonomics in the eleventh grade. It was the first time that I had read a book cover to cover without stopping. I began to think of economics as decision making science, and I thought that it would be an incredibly valuable thing to study. I no longer believe that.
During my first semester, I took the first of two required math courses for economics majors. It was a pretty basic Calculus 1 class with a great and friendly teacher. The first exam rolled around and the class average was a 54; I got a 114. I’m not saying this to brag, in fact at the time, I wasn’t stellar at calculus. I taught the subject to myself in high school and only got a 3 on the AP Exam. My thought process was that if econ students were only taking two math courses, and they couldn’t succeed in the first one, then they probably weren’t getting jobs which required them to use math. This was shocking to me, because economics has been advertised relentlessly by those in the field as being a quantitative discipline. It really isn’t. I think because there is so much economic data in the world, we tend to think that economics students study that economic data. Indeed, I felt as though my classes were a far cry from all the interesting uses of data I’d read about in Freakonomics.
I ended up double majoring in statistics, since I realized my true passion had always been making sense of data. My 15 or so statistics courses got me out of taking the two econometrics courses in the economics department. The stat curriculum included programming, hypothesis testing, distribution theory, design of experiments, data science, and machine learning; it was great. I would ask my fellow economics students what they were learning about in econometrics. Unfortunately, they’d all too often respond with, “Excel and linear regression.” One economics professor even said to me “The great thing about econ students is y’all get to learn to work with data.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with Excel or linear regression, but when that is the extent of your knowledge around data, then you don’t really know how to work with it.
As I progressed through the courses in economics, I began to realize that besides not learning anything about math, I wasn’t learning much about economics either. Each and every professor I had explained what the prisoner’s dilemma was and supply and demand — like I hadn’t heard it in every previous course. During senior year I ended up with an anal professor who made the entire class stand up one at a time and explain basic economic concepts to the class. I was again shocked by my classmates, finding out that in the first week I was one of the only students that could adequately explain the concept of economic surplus.
If any of my professors read this article and had a response to it, I think most would say something like, “Well, a degree is meant to credential you as a smart person that is capable of learning, it doesn’t matter so much what you study.” This is not true. It may have been easy to change careers when my professors were my age, but times have changed. As technology advances, expectations go up and it gets harder every year. Additionally, professors who argue this are bright and probably capable of changing careers with ease, unlike the broader population. They falsely assume everyone else is as smart as they are, I assume everyone is at least as dumb as me.
I’ve had professors tell me that the real benefit to studying economics is that it shows you how to think. Honestly, economic thinking can be summarized with two statements. First, evaluate decisions based on their opportunity costs. Second, consider marginal benefits and marginal costs in your thinking. You can learn these principles without spending four years at a university as an economics major. Besides that, economics teaches you to make overly logical models of the world. These models frequently rely on the assumption that actors in these models have perfect information, are great at statistics and optimization, don’t procrastinate, aren’t subject to temptations, and make emotionless decisions. As a result, models are far from ground truth and don’t predict the real world well. The economics field is forcing itself to become more and more theoretical, and as it does so, it loses value post-graduation.
The hottest skills on the market right now are working with data and understanding math. Economics pretends to teach those things, and doesn’t, at least on the undergraduate level. Now, perhaps this is just an indictment of the curriculum where I went to school, but I suspect that it is endemic to the curriculum of most universities. If you’re choosing to study it, I’d recommend studying something else. If you’re looking for a more practical but similar subject, I’d recommend statistics, data science, or industrial engineering. I wish you good luck in your educational decisions, your career is heavily influenced by it.