A note on changes in the study of economics

The NYT has an article about how Stanford is working to become an economics powerhouse (not that it wasn’t already a top school) through big hires and retention of great faculty. It’s a pretty insider-y article, but I did think there were a few nuggets. The first is something I noted early on in my time here, that economics these days, empirical microeconomics using big administrative datasets or requiring significant relationship building with policymakers, requires a lot of help, and many skills that traditional economics programs don’t really offer (management, hiring, cross-disciplinary work, etc.)

That kind of work requires lots of research assistants, work across disciplines including fields like sociology and computer science, and the use of advanced computational techniques unavailable a generation ago.

It kind of feels like a whole different ballgame. In some ways, it’s exciting. But I also worry about how it makes economics much more dependent on post-docs and grad students and large amounts of funding. All these things could make it harder to break into the discipline, to have an impact and make waves if you are lacking them. It may not be so extreme as to call it the physicsification of economics, but I see my astronomer and hard-sciences friends languishing in post-docs for years and it doesn’t look fun.

In terms of the overall conclusions of the piece, Greg Mankiw’s comment about how Harvard/MIT’s dominance will be hard to challenge resonated with me, merely for a reason of concentration of economists. Having spent a little more than a year now at Harvard and twelve years at various other institutions studying and teaching economics, I can’t stress enough how different this place is from other institutions. There are economists everywhere in Cambridge, which means more seminars, more chances to run into someone working on something exciting, more visitors, more events. Now that classes are back in session, I remember how much I love seminars and workshops. It’s awesome to hear about new things that people are trying and to hear how great minds think about different problems in estimation and methodology. It’s been a real privilege. It’s also really fun to chime in and have Larry Katz nod in agreement or Michael Kremer tell you that you have a good idea.

Though if Boston gets another winter like last one, who knows what will happen!


Author: ekfletch

I am an independent researcher on issues of gender, labor, violence, education, and children.

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