David Colander on Graduate Study in Economics
By Arnold Kling
The book is The Making of an Economist, Redux. It provides facts, analysis, and opinions of the graduate programs at top economics departments. I’ll excerpt a few sentences, and then I’ll add my opinion of what I would like to see in graduate economic education.on p. 3-4
Notice that I said “twenty of the top ten.” The reason is that there are many different ranking systems…Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, MIT, Princeton, and Yale–are consistently ranked in the top ten.
on p. 15
economics changes not by revolution but by slow evolution. This reflects the continual exit of economists through retirement and the continual entrance of economists to replace them. In the fifteen years since the original “Making of an Economist” study, there has been about a 30 percent turnover
on p. 43
In the early 1980’s, many students went into graduate economics study thinking that it would be like undergraduate school; today almost all students know better. In effect, students have been prescreened to be comfortable with the mathematics in the program. Similarly, graduate schools know better what they want and select students who are comfortable in the approach that will be taught.
on p. 46
the macro that is taught to the students in the core has lost touch with both policy and empirical evidence. Instead, students are presented with dynamic stochastic optimal control theory and Euler equations.
Robert Solow contributes a brief chapter. On p. 235, he says
I will just say that the macro community has perpetrated a rhetorical swindle on itself, and on its students. (Evidently some of the students realize this, but not their teachers!) If you pick up any “modern macro” paper, it tells you it will exhibit a “micro-founded” model…it is, of course, the representative-agent, infinite-horizon, intertemporal-optimization-with-conventional-constraints story…it is as if my diet consisted entirely of carrots, and, when asked why, I reply grandly that I am a vegetarian. Being a vegetarian is not excuse for choosing and, worse, promoting a ridiculously restricted menu
Back to Colander himself, on p. 240.
the core is primarily a selection and hazing device that insures that only highly analytical individuals become economists…The interchange of people with diverse views and methods is lost, and the result is intellectual inbreeding, with all the problems that inbreeding brings about.
I think that inbreeding is dictated by the structure of academia, at least in economics. There are more Ph. D’s produced each year at top schools than there are job openings at top schools. On average, then, students get placed in lower-ranked economics departments than the ones in which they are trained, resulting in what I call Startz’s Law. Almost thirty years ago, Dick Startz observed that, “The distribution of faculty quality across universities is more equal than you might think. The distribution of graduate student quality across universities is more unequal than you might think.”
Suppose that you think of yourself as the “child” of the professor who signed your dissertation. Thus, I am Solow’s “child.” But I have not given Solow any grandchildren.
In order to have lots of grandchildren, you need to have lots of highly productive children. In order to have lots of highly productive children, it is necessary–and far from sufficient–to teach where there are lots of top-flight graduate students. Basically, if you are teaching anywhere other than Harvard, MIT, or Chicago, your chances of having lots of grandchildren are pretty low. I’ll bet that if you added up all the grandchildren of all the professors who have not spent more than five years teaching in one of the 6 departments listed on p.4, they would add up to less than the number of Gary Becker’s grandchildren.
The reason macro is in such a mess is that it’s filled with the grandchildren of Bob Lucas and Stan Fischer. Lucas and Fischer are fine economists, but they overbred.
Another reason that macro does not work in grad school is that studying macro is like studying polio–the serious problem of long-term macroeconomic distress has been eradicated. As recently as when I was in graduate school, the problem of stagflation at least provide some motivation to do applied work. Until there is a major outbreak of inflation or prolonged recession, I think that macro ought to be a history of thought course.
If I could influence the graduate school curriculum (and clearly I cannot, given that I do not even have “children,” much less “grandchildren”), I would do the following:
1. Require that students take a course for one quarter in “How to teach economics.” This would include examples from popular books, classic economic fallacies, and so on. I would require this course, because (a) you learn something about a subject when you think about teaching it and (b) many economists do wind up teaching, and many of us believe that economics is important for citizens to learn. But I would not require more than one quarter, because I suspect that there are rapidly diminishing returns. By the way, I believe that Russ Roberts of Cafe Hayek offers a course of this sort at GMU.
2. Require that students take at least two semesters in an applied field. This might be health economics, environmental economics, development economics, or the economics of education, for example. The first semester should be spent in standard classroom format. The second semester should be spent writing a 40-page analytical paper under the supervision of a professor. The paper should provide a critical survey of the literature that relates to an important issue within the applied field.
3. In tenure decisions, put less emphasis on published journal articles and more emphasis on books as well as on shorter, unpublished work that presents interesting findings, raises important questions about published work, or simply points people toward interesting work. By no means should the weight on journal articles drop toward zero. But I want more Tyler Cowens and Bernie Saffrans. And more David Colanders.