Econ doesn’t stick

This may explain why today’s economists are so hapless; they simply don’t know the relevant core principles:

Unfortunately, however, most students seem to emerge from introductory economics courses without having learned even the most important basic principles. According to one recent study, their ability to answer simple economic questions several months after leaving the course is not measurably different from that of people who never took a principles course.

What explains such abysmal performance? One problem is the encyclopedic range typical of introductory courses. As the Nobel laureate George J. Stigler wrote more than 40 years ago, “The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student no basic economic logic with which to analyze the economic questions he will face as a citizen.”

Another problem is that the introductory course is increasingly tailored not for the majority of students for whom it will be their only economics course, but for the negligible fraction who will go on to become professional economists. Such courses focus on the mathematical models that have become the cornerstone of modern economic theory. These models prove daunting for many students and leave them little time and energy to focus on how basic economic principles help explain everyday behavior.

But there is an even more troubling explanation for students’ failure to learn fundamental economic concepts. It is that many of their professors may have only a tenuous grasp of these concepts, since they, too, took encyclopedic introductory courses, followed by advanced courses that were even more technical.

It may sound cool, at least to dorks, to be a quant or a wonk. But all the technical expertise in the world doesn’t do you any good if you don’t get the core concepts right. That’s why, in RGD, I attempted to begin at the beginning and leave as much jargon and econometrics out of it as was reasonably possible. I was fortunate, as about half my econ professors had a fairly sound grasp of the core concepts. But given the more common nature of those who didn’t, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that their sort are in the majority. As I’ve mentioned before, I once met a nominal econ major from a big state school who had never heard of Keynes or the General Theory.

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