Monday, January 07, 2008

What should economists learn? 

Interviewing at the AEAs means being stuck in a hotel room (or worse for me, in a meeting hall with many tables where job applicants come in without any privacy in a bit that reminds me of speed-dating; maybe we call it "It's Just My Career!") so I miss all the meetings where people say interesting things. The one I regret missing most is where economists from the top PhD programs discuss what we should teach in the first year of a doctoral student's graduate career. The Chronicle of Higher Education (temp link, permalink for CHE subcribers) reports that some argued for macroeconomics to not consume a third of the first year experience. I would argue that a good bit of what I learned in the early 1980s in grad school is now useless, which I cannot say about my micro (and it should be known we had three semesters of micro vs. two of macro at Claremont.) But that does not mean there is not more good stuff to replace what is obsolete.

Susan Athey of Harvard makes a broader point though:
On a broader level, the panelists disagreed about whether the core should be imagined as a set of crucial, substantive facts or as a package of techniques that would allow students to take more specialized courses in the second year and begin their own research. Ms. Athey argued for the latter approach. "Instead of trying to think about every possible thing that every economist should know," she said, "we should be thinking about, What's really going to help these second-year courses move along very quickly into the substance?"
It is reported that most panelists did not think the core would change much, because who teaches in the core will both teach the topics they prefer, and if like me they teach grad macro regularly, are loathe to toss away too many of their notes.

We were one of many schools interviewing for a health economist this year, and the breadth of topics these candidates worked on was amazing. But all involved some variation of a model of individual choice by households or firms. In some cases there was an insistence on rationality, in some cases it was bounded or thwarted by something else. (For instance, until this weekend I had never heard the words "rational addiction" used together, but of course the idea has been there for twenty years.) It seems to me that the topic "health" was simply an environment in which the techniques we all recognized as being "economics" were applied. Perhaps students are getting this without us having to be intentional in teaching techniques. And so, perhaps, it's not as big a problem as argued in the article.