Is Econ a Mickey Mouse Major?
By Bryan Caplan
My intellectual conscience engages whenever I speak of “Mickey Mouse majors.” After all, many people see my own discipline – economics – as a prime example. Are they wrong?
It depends. There are at least four different senses of the “Mickey Mouse major” snub.
1. “Mickey Mouse majors” = Majors with low financial rewards.
2. “Mickey Mouse majors” = Majors that teach few job skills.
3. “Mickey Mouse majors” = Majors that address trivial or nonsensical questions.
4. “Mickey Mouse majors” = Majors that provide few solid answers to important questions.
Judged against standard #1, economics is clearly not a Mickey Mouse major. Adjusting for preexisting ability, economics is one of the most lucrative majors – almost on par with electrical engineering.
Judged against standard #2, however, economics does poorly. In my experience, undergraduate econ majors learn only two skills they’re likely to use in any job outside the Ivory Tower: (a) how to calculate a present discounted value, and (b) basic statistics. Except in top schools, I doubt most econ majors master either (a) or (b). The remainder of the economics curriculum simply isn’t vocational.
Judged against standard #3, economics does fairly well. While we do have silly mathematical theorists and picayune empiricists, they’re a minority. Most economists now do empirical work on fairly important questions about human behavior and public policy.
Judged against standard #4, economics again does fairly well. Any halfway decent Intro Econ class is a revelation to a thoughtful undergraduate. Even macroeconomics has a long list of truths to teach, though macro pedagogy is exceptionally poor.
Overall, then, I feel pretty good about the economics discipline. Yes, if human capital extremism were true, economics would be a sordid game of bait-and-switch. Since most education is just signaling, however, our graduates usually get the well-paid jobs they’ve come to expect. Along the way, we expose our students to some important questions and compelling answers. Economics professors certainly have a lot of room for improvement, but we could be doing far worse.
Afterthought: Do any majors really deserve the Mickey Mouse stigma in all my senses of the word? History qualifies by standards #1 and 2, but not #3 or 4. Philosophy qualifies by standards #1, 2, and 4, but not 3. I suspect that “identity politics” majors – such as ethnic studies, gender studies, and theology – are indeed Mickey Mouse majors in all four senses. In all honesty, though, I’m so skeptical about the merits of these fields that I’ve never acquired enough concrete information to confirm or refute my skepticism.