In the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Colander makes the case that economics is a popular major because it is "just right" - tougher than the other social sciences but not as tough as the hard sciences.
This is a thoughtful piece and well worth reading. The popularity of economics is a real problem for university administrators because economists cost a lot more than sociologists or even than physicists.
I, of course, have a few thoughts of my own:
The introductory bits are a bit silly. Economists never saw the market as the solution to everything in the past and they certainly do not now. There was never a time when economists modeled individuals as solely motivated by "greed"; agents have been maximizing utility, broadly conceived, since the birth of modern economics. Finally, behavioral economics does not somehow favor governments over markets. People in government exhibit the same "behavioral" tics as actors in markets; so while the research program to integrate more empirically grounded insights from psychology into economics is a promising one in my view, it is not one with an obvious political cast.
Turning now to the heart of the argument, a more careful distinction could be made between the difficulty of the material presented in a given discipline and the toughness of the grading in a given discipline. Economists are notable for resisting grade inflation relative to other disciplines (though we have not resisted it very well here at Michigan). That is a separate issue from whether or not we present more quantitative material, either theoretically or empirically. I suspect that grade inflation is important in and of itself as employers likely guess that a transcript full of A grades in the softer social sciences does not provide much information about ability or effort. Grade inflation is, of course, solved pretty easily by administrative action to set limits on the fraction of students receiving each letter grade in courses of various levels, as was done at Western Ontario (within economics) when I was teaching there.
Colander leaves out three other factors that also, I think, account for the popularity of economics.
1. Economics is sexy. This has two dimensions: the popularity of pop economics books like Freakonomics and the predominance of economists in the power hierarchy of Washington DC.
2. Economics has become more interesting to more students as it has broadened its reach to include topics, like the family and sports, that were previously treated only by other disciplines.
3. Economics is by far the most politically balanced of the social sciences. Students can speak freely in economics classes even if they are white males from middle class families. Students will find, at most schools, economics faculty who are democrats, republicans and, often, libertarians. This poltical balance makes economics stronger as a discipline and makes a broad range of students feel welcome to choose our major and intellectually engage the field.
I think the third of these factors is probably the most important but it would be interesting to investigate the question empricially.
Hat tip: Greg Mankiw via Dan Black
It's really quite easy.
1 year ago