Why Should You Major in Economics?
By Art Carden
Fall semester has started, and I hope you’re settled in. If you’re a college freshman or sophomore, you might be trying to choose a major. If you’re a high school junior or senior, you might be thinking about what you want to study once you get to college. Here are a few reasons to major in economics:
1. Economics is a General-Purpose Intellectual Technology. It’s true that economics can’t tell you whether God exists and isn’t going to tell you what happens when you mix Chemical A and Chemical B, but an economics degree gives you a set of intellectual tools that can be adapted to any social problem. Economics is about a lot more than money, banking, and interest rates. Recent examples of extremely interesting applications of economics to subjects that might not, at first glance, look like what most people think of as economics include David Skarbek’s work on prison gangs, Chris Coyne’s work on war, and David Romer’s work on whether football teams go for it on fourth down often enough. If you want to understand the social world, you should study economics.
2. Since Economics is a General-Purpose Intellectual Technology, you can do almost anything with an economics major. Want to go to law school? You should major in economics. Interested in graduate school in public policy? Major in economics.
3. Economics is a Complement to Information Technology. Data and computing power are getting cheaper by the second. Economics helps us sort through the data to figure out what is really going on.
4. Economics Pays Well and Is The Most Employable of the Non-Vocational Majors. Co-blogger Bryan Caplan has written on this a few times; he calls economics “the highest-paid of all the easy majors,” noting that it “does not put the crimp on your social life that CS or Engineering do.” When Bryan writes “easy majors,” he is using STEM fields as his basis for comparison. In economics, you can study a lot of the same things you would study in the other social sciences and humanities, but the degree is more employable than a degree in the humanities or the other social sciences.
5. “Economics is Both Practical and Interesting.” That’s what Jeffrey Miron says in his 2008 discussion of the economics major. Economics is a major that strikes a very nice balance between a liberal arts education and a vocational education.
This last point is really, really important. I started college wanting to be a stockbroker. I took principles of microeconomics, and it blew my mind. I thought I knew something about economics before starting college; however, that simply wasn’t the case. I started thinking “maybe I want to be an economics professor,” and that was solidified when I took principles of macroeconomics. In asking whether economics is a “Mickey Mouse major,” Bryan notes that the skills economics majors are likely to use in the workforce are discounting cash flows and doing basic statistics. I think you’ll learn more than this: a nuanced understanding of opportunity cost will make you a better decision-maker and a better citizen. More than the practical skills, however, economics invites you to understand the world and gives you the tools that will help you do it. It rocked my world when I first started studying it seriously, and it continues to rock my world day in and day out. And that’s a pretty nice way to live.