Thursday, August 21, 2014

An interview in which I was asked if we should change the way we teach economics

Here's a set of questions and answers exchanged over email last month with a reporter in Brazil (my answers in italics):

Dear Professor Roth,

I work for Exame, which has been the best-selling economic magazine in Brazil for the last 40 years. I’m now writing a piece on whether the content of economics degrees should or should not change and I wonder if I could ask you some questions. The questions are below. You could either write the answers or I can call you anytime you like before Thursday, 24th.

Best wishes,

Eduardo Salgado

1) Should the content of economics degrees change? Why? Why not?
I guess you mean should we change what we teach young economists, and of course the only answer is “of course!”  What we teach young physicists and biologists and doctors and civil engineers changes as we learn more about those things, and economics is no different.

2) Has the criticism of economics been exaggerated after the 2008 crisis? To what extent is the current debate on content useful?
I think the 2008 crisis has been useful for pointing out that economics is, in many of its parts, still a very young science. For an analogy, think of medicine, which is the part of biology that we most often look to for advice, and is also a young science in many of its parts. Each year we worry that there might be an influenza epidemic due to whatever new strain of flu is observed in Asia that year, and each year vaccines are prepared, in an attempt to avert a disaster like the influenza pandemic of 1918. So far we’ve been lucky, but it’s not because we have a deep understanding of what could cause another epidemic or how to prevent it. But if another epidemic occurs, we’ll need to rely more on doctors and medicine, not less. So, while we need to understand epidemics better, that’s not a deep criticism of medicine, just an acknowledgement of some of its current limitations. Similarly for economic crises, and economics.

3) What changes should be made?
One of the things we’re devoting more attention to at Stanford is the kind of economic engineering called market design, which pays attention to the detailed rules by which particular marketplaces operate, and to experimental economics, which gives us a tool to better understand how people behave in economic environments.

4) Has economics teaching become too wedded to scientific pretension? Was excessive faith invested in abstract mathematical models?
Abstract mathematical models are very useful, in combination with other kinds of investigation. A lot of my work is devoted to market design, and my colleagues and I build a lot of marketplaces that have some of their ancestry in abstract mathematical models (including some of those explored by the famous Brazilian economist Marilda Sotomayor, in whose honor there is a conference next week).  Mathematical models are becoming increasingly important as we start to explore really big data sets, since not only do you need mathematical tools to test hypotheses on data, you need models to even suggest what hypotheses you should be testing. Theory and observation work best in combination…

1 comment:

sergedago said...

I understand your answer to the question 2 (and I think that you are right to a certain extent). However your analogy to the medicine does not seem to take into account the big turning points (but maybe I am wrong). For example, after Pasteur, we do not practise any more the medicine in the same way and we attend in a kind of revolution in the medical practices. In economy, there is before and after Keynes, then before and after the new classic school, etc. I believe that the question concerned it: the crisis of 2008 infers something loke a radical reversal or merely some modifications in the teaching and practice of economics - what you seem to suggest?