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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Why doesn’t anyone know what economics is?

One of my eternal frustrations is trying to explain what I do to those outside the field. Misconceptions about economics and economists abound, whether it is people thinking economics is only about interest rates or the stock market, or simply believing that economics requires a lot of math (although that belief is probably justified at the graduate level, the core economic principles that define the field certainly don’t require any math to understand). I’d probably be bothered less if I were a macroeconomist (since most laypeople equate economics with macro), but I think that even most macro folks would agree that depressingly few non-economists really understand that at its core, economics is about human behavior.

Apparently, even the non-economist faculty at Harvard are struggling with this. In his blog, Greg Mankiw reprinted his email to the Harvard Crimson in which he explains that the intro Economics sequence does not belong in the “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning” category but instead should go in the “The United States in the World” category of the General Education requirements. Now, I could go on for awhile about Gen Ed requirements but I’ll save that for some other time. My point here is that this fundamental misunderstanding of what economics is, as a field, is so widespread that even professors in other liberal arts fields often do not really know what we do. I do think that the recent popularity of books like Freakonomics is helping the general public to better understand the reality of what many microeconomists do, and I’m hopeful that as microeconomists get more/better press for tackling more controversial and less ‘traditional’ topics, like happiness, health and aging, or crime, the perception of the field will change. I just wish I could speed up the process…

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