Thursday, November 22, 2007

"Undergraduate Economics is a Joke"

I'm not sure what this site is. Maybe it is put up by one of David Colander's undergraduate students. But this appears to be a chapter from Colander, Holt, and Rosser (2004), consisting of an interview with Herbert Gintis. (I also provide, in references an Colander, Holt, and Rosser response to reactions to that book.)

Herb moved to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as part of one of those McCarthyite purges they keep on performing in the Harvard economics department. This one was in the early 1970s. Gintis no longer considers himself an heterodox economist. You might consider him a representative of mainstream economics at UMass. This identification can be seen to have generated some prickly comments here and there. But Gintis has a point, given that his interests have evolved to include principal agent problems, asymmetric information, behavioral economics, experimental economics, and evolutionary game theory.

Anyway, here's what a defender of the mainstream has to say about how economics is taught:
"You can’t write all economists off as ideologues, because they’re not. They’re open to new ideas. However, there’s still this incredible tension in what we teach. I am so displeased at the way undergraduate and even graduate economics is taught. Undergraduate economics is a joke--macro is okay but micro is a joke, because they teach this stuff that you know is not true. They know the general equilibrium model is not true. The model has no good stability properties, it doesn’t predict anything interesting, but they teach it. The production theory that is taught is also a joke. They use this old Marshallian production with LRACs and MRACs to determine firm size. This doesn’t determine firm size, it determines plant size. Totally different things determine firm size. So why do we teach undergraduates this? Why do you teach income and substitution effects and Giffen goods, when there are so many interesting things to discuss? So I am so upset by what they teach. I am retiring from UMass this year (Sam is, too), so I won’t have to deal with this anomaly any more.

If this were physics or astronomy, when they get new ideas at the forefront, they immediately teach them, but in economics they teach the stuff that even thirty years ago, people didn’t believe. My view is that economists should not be so tolerant of teaching out-of-date ideas. Micro is a total disaster. So I think there’s still a tension, and that there will be one for a long time. I guess sometimes people treat Sam, me, and all these people who do behavioral work, like they treat the dentist, it hurts but you should go do it." -- Herbert Gintis

Happy thanksgiving.

  • Colander, D., R. P. F. Holt, and J. B. Rosser, Jr. (2004). The Changing Face of Economics: Conversations with Cutting Edge Economists, University of Michigan Press.
  • Colander, D., R. P. F. Holt, and J. B. Rosser, Jr. (2007). "Live and Dead Issues in the Methodology of Economics", (June)


Gabriel M. said...

Is this the same Gintis who wrote The Dynamics of General Equilibrium? [ ] Funny. He's far more polite and productive there.

Anonymous said...

Gintis is simply wrong that in physics new ideas are immediately brought to the forefront of the undergraduate curriculum. In fact, much of the undergraduate curriculum is "wrong" in the sense that they are only weak approximations of the real thing. But you have to ease the students in and allow them to build the necessary intellectual machinery.

My understanding of economics is that this easing in procedure does not occur. Undergrad is almost completely different that graduate economics. (Although I suspect you are not a fan of graduate-level econ either.)

Perhaps they should make the course of study a little more rigorous at the undergrad level.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Along those lines, the general equilibrium model isn't really taught at undergrad level - much. You might see an Edgeworth box and do a wave-handy proof of 1st Theorem but most of the time you don't go into the nitty gritty. Certainly not gonna go into stability (and of course I tend to disagree with Gintis on this) issues or stuff like that. But the simple reason for this is that it's just too technically complicated. At that point you're still struggling to teach your students what a derivative is and how to transpose a vector.

But yeah, I agree with anonymous. There'd be a lot less 'tension' and 'lying' in undergrad teaching if it was more rigorous and technical. Like if Calc 1 was a pre req for Principles and higher Calcs and Linear Algebra were pre reqs for intermediate theory classes. It'd be basically admitting that economics is a technical subject, which everyone already knows. It would also save some misguided students from becoming Econ majors and then realizing that they've got to learn all this math later on.

Anonymous said...

My first-year micro-econ course at the Australian National University in Canberra in the late 1970s consisted mainly of natural language statements preceded by the word "Theorem", followed by diagrams preceded by the word "Proof". The best example I remember was:

"Theorem: Any intervention by a Government in an economy always leads to a fall in national income."

The lecturer prefaced his proof of this outrageous claim by saying, "Imagine a two-person economy, one of whom is the Government." He then drew a diagram, which he claimed was a proof.

It was a tough call to determine which group of students were most in despair at this lecturer's ignorance and arrogance -- the pure mathematicians or the political scientists. In either case, you either shut up or you failed the course.

And people wonder why I have a low regard for economists . . .

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comments. Other than recognizing that there is nothing impolite in Gintis' statements, I am not too decided one way or the other. It may be helpful to understand Gintis' perspective to recall that he has written a textbook. I have read neither that book nor Kreps' textbook, which I understand also proposes a different way of teaching micro.

Gabriel M. said...

Yes, not "impolite". Maybe "irreverent". My English vocabulary (or lack thereof!)

I remember emailing a common acquittance, online-speaking, and expressing excitement about that paper. The thought of it being mainstream or not never crossed my mind because it was progress, it was "engaging the issues" constructively.

YouNotSneaky! said...

I just read the whole interview. The quote in this post is a bit cherry picked. The rest is very much worth reading as well. Even or especially for Robert. said...

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