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Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Making of an Economist (1987)

"Robert Kuttner (1985), summarizing the views of critical economists such as Wassily Leontief and John Kenneth Galbraith, writes: ''Departments of economics are graduating a generation of idiots savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of actual economic life.''...

The typical graduate student in economics at these selected institutions [Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Yale] is a 26-year-old, middle class, nonreligious white male who is involved in a long-term relationship... As to the things they liked least, the majority of comments focused on the heavy load of mathematics and theory and a lack of relevance of the material they were learning...

Jacob Viner once said that ''men are not narrow in their intellectual interests by nature; it takes special and rigorous training to accomplish that end.'' Based on our survey we can conclude that graduate economics education is succeeding in narrowing students' interests... Even though most graduate students believed that reading in areas such as history and political science, and to a lesser extent, sociology and philosophy, was important from their development as economists, [most] lacked the time...

Knowledge of the economy and knowledge of economic literature do not make an economist successful, according to graduate students. Forty-three percent believed that a knowledge of economic literature was unimportant... Sixty-eight percent believed that a thorough knowledge of the economy was unimportant... Clearly these results raise significant questions about the nature of graduate school, what is being taught, and the socialization process that occurs...

The scientific status of economics is clearly in doubt among students. A majority deny two key elements of any objective science: the distinction between positive and normative economics and agreement on fundamental issues... It seems to be a creed at Chicago that inflation is primarily a monetary phenomenon, with 100 percent agreeing with the proposition. At Harvard, 46 percent disagree. Likewise, it seems a creed at MIT that fiscal policy can be an effective tool for stabilization with no student disagreeing. At Chicago, 44 percent disagree... Harvard shows... a significant number of the students skeptical of the market...

Chicago students... demonstrate the greatest commitment to neoclassical economics... As one third-year MIT student noted: ''There are no Lucas types [at MIT].'' It is particularly striking that not a single MIT student thinks the rational expectations assumption is very important...

'A guy... on the faculty here, is very concerned with [policy] and I get the impression that he's almost sneered at for caring about practical problems that come along with implementing theoretical results. And there really are very few people on the faculty whose work I've seen really take that sort of thing into consideration...

The graduates are well-trained in problem-solving, but it is technical problem-solving which has more to do with formal modeling techniques than with real world problems. To do the problems little real world knowledge of institutions is needed, and in many cases such knowledge would actually be a hindrance since the simplifying assumptions would be harder to accept.

Students come into graduate school wanting economics to be relevant... but they quickly come around; they perceive the incentives in the system. They ar convinced that formal modeling is important to success, but are not convinced that the formal models provide deep insight into or reflect a solid understanding of the economic institutions being modeled... students who believe they are not being taught the most complicated theory feel deprived and unhappy...

''The first year seems to shape the rest of our career as an economist. It is really disturbing. We are moving into something but nobodey really knows what that is, except that they were socialized in this way of thinking by people who got their PH.D.s five years ago. It's like being brainwashed. You are deprived of sleep. You are subjected to extreme stress, bombarded with contradictory notions, and you end up accepting anything."
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