Economics’ academic tug-of-war

Economics is, in my opinion, the most intriguing social science there is. It seems to be the source from which all other fields of social science derive their roots and meaning.

Murphy-economics-as-social-scienceMacroeconomics has been one of the guiding forces of history, changing geopolitical landscapes via inflation, volatility, and depressions. Following the 2008 financial crisis, politics have become nearly synonymous with economics. In regards to philosophy, philosophers like Karl Marx were the first to truly consider important questions of economics regarding the relationship between labor and capital.

Microeconomics, often considered something along the lines of the science of decision making, has been taking major steps toward becoming more a branch of psychology.

 

 

With all of these amazing connections to exciting disciplines, you would think that economics at the undergraduate level would be a wonderful interdisciplinary major that dissects the implications of economics on a host of different fields. Instead, economics has an unfortunate obsession with another field that tends to push others out of the picture: mathematics.

Don’t misunderstand me — math is an absolutely crucial part of economics and needs to be valued and respected to the highest degree. I am also not deriding the economics major; I think it is one of the very best majors available because of the exceptional level of critical thinking it requires.

However, economics is a social science, not some branch of mathematics, and we need to start treating it as such.

Thomas Piketty, who has risen to considerable levels of fame with his latest book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” is among economists who are concerned with economics’ fascination with ineffective mathematical models. In a Slate review on the book, contributor David Auerbach states, “One of Piketty’s fundamental complaints about economics is that it uses data in a blinkered and narrow way, shunting figures into esoteric mathematical models that overgeneralize them and generate ‘laws’ that are nothing of the sort.”

This field is not like engineering — the most valuable solutions are not quantifiable and confirmed. It is more like political science, where a host of ideologies and contexts must be taken into account to make a rational decision.

Instead, we are training economics to function in a vacuum that does not exist. Academic economics is no longer about ideas, and that is simply a tragedy.

Luckily, change seems to be coming. Drawing from economics students from universities around the world, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics is calling for a broader, less-restricted academic approach to economics — one that allows for competing theories and methods and places a greater emphasis on real-world application.

There are some schools that have caught on to some of the concerns with the divorce of economics with social science and its irritating marriage to mathematics. To counter this complaint, universities like Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill have provided a rather-popular major called Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Whereas plain old economics at American universities can be steeped in the pitfalls I’ve explained, PPE respects the true nature of economic — the nature of a social science.

 

Reach the columnist at bjmurph2@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @MurphJamin

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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