Hoisted from the Comments: The Culture that is Undergraduate Economics

Via Scott Sumner, here is a comment from Scott Brown:

I am an 18 year old college student with a strong interest in economics. With regret, I have to say that, based on what I’ve seen, you are totally correct in your assessment of our generation.

When I talk to other people in my age group about economics, there seem to be two groups. One group sees easy money as the root of all economic problems. These are the Ron Paul supporters who talk about gold all the time. They read Mises on a regular basis and constantly use the world “fallacy” (usually accompanied with something about a broken window).

The other group reads Krugman on a daily basis. In their view, the ultimate problem with our economy is that the government isn’t running large enough deficits and that underregulation of the banking industry was the only major cause of the financial troubles in 2008. On top of this, this group scoffs at the thought that high marginal tax rates, overregulation, and even trade protectionism have any negative effect on long term GDP. According to them, the large tax/transfer systems and tightly regulated labor markets had nothing to do with the relative decline of GDP in Western Europe.

There are very few, if you will, centre-right or centre-left economists. I would consider myself centre to centre-right, all things considered. I am a staunch believer in free trade and free markets, but I also support NGDP targeting. Like you, Mr. Sumner, I am of the view that we should have the fed boost AD while we continue to partake in pro growth, neoliberal reforms in the rest of our economy.

Unfortunatley, if nothing changes, I would predict we will have a generation of economic policy managed by goldbugs who want to abolish the fed (or peg it to gold) and hard left statists who think 90% tax rates are good and free trade is bad.

Scott is inclined to believe this [Scott has corrected me in the comments], but I think it’s hyperbole.  I am removed from my undergraduate studies by about two years, but that is not a very long time, I still work with undergraduate economics (and business) students, and of course I know plenty of econ grad students.

In my experience this division basically does not exist.  Yes there are gold bugs and Krugmanites, but there are also soft libertarians, young market monetarists (really), “lost” graduate students just looking for a worthwhile research question, gold-hating Austrians, students from other fields who are just trying to learn something useful about economics or even pick up a second major, game theory nerds, Euro-crisis nerds, post-Marxists (maybe this is just an Occupy Boston thing?), lots of aspiring development economists (who are in turn split between Sachsists, Easterly acolytes, randomistas, and more), sports economics nerds, Ben Bernanke wannabes (no overt ideology, just trying to get a job at the Fed), Freakonomists (interested in applying simple economic concepts and counterintuitive ideas to daily life — everything but also nothing — in an almost random fashion), etc…

…but mostly there are just stressed out and confused undergrads.  Few of them fall into just one of the above categories, especially as they progress through their studies —  some fall into zero, some manage to reconcile soft libertarian views with their activities in Occupy Boston.  The professors, for their part, are mostly just decent people responsible for teaching the most basic tools of economics to sleepy teenagers, without applying much if any of their own ideology, if they even have one.

It’s a wide economics world out there.


  1. Ssumner
    Ssumner December 24, 2012 at 1:59 PM |

    Despite your remark that I was “inclined to believe” Brown’s experience was typical, I find your description of economics today to be quite plausible.  I actually didn’t express any views as to whether Brown’s experience was typical.

    1. Jacob A. Geller
      Jacob A. Geller December 24, 2012 at 4:25 PM |

      Sorry about that, it was a warrantless assumption on my part.  I’ve made a correction in the post.

  2. John Brown
    John Brown December 25, 2012 at 2:37 PM |


    This is John Brown, the commenter from Sumner’s blog.

    I actually think your description is pretty spot on.

    My central point was that, based on my experience, there was a lot of resistance to neoliberal economic policies on the left and a lot of support for hard money on the right.

    Obviously, most students are primarily concerned with things more immediate to them and are not hardcore ideological warriors. This has always been true.

    That does not mean that the general viewpoints among both econ students and the general public won’t have a big impact on the economic policies of the decades to come.

    My concern is that there will be less consensus on things that most economists believe today. This could mean less support for free trade from the econ community and much more mainstream support for things like a gold standard.

    I hope that I am wrong and that my experience is truly atypical.

    1. Jacob A. Geller
      Jacob A. Geller January 30, 2013 at 2:02 AM |

      I think that over time, you will find more and more than views among economists and the public, across both space and time, are highly heterogeneous.  What you have so far heard from your friends, read in the blogosphere, and seen in the news and on television, is only a tiny, tiny slice of what’s out there.

      See here for a good description of how your education in economics will progress, assuming you are not atypical:  http://chrisblattman.com/2012/01/11/how-much-economics-should-you-study-in-college-or-why-economics-is-like-a-martial-art/

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