Why Study Economics?

Josh Wright —  13 February 2006

There are a lot of good reasons. Perhaps these will be the subject of another post. But earning potential has never been a big one. I recall an economics professor of mine during my undergraduate years at UCSD frequently describing the job of an economist as “talking money without ever earning any.” A recent study of undergraduate job placements suggests that this might be changing, noting that economics/finance majors experienced the greatest growth in starting salaries from 2005 levels.

Plus, you could win a Nobel Prize! Ok … Ok … I know … it is not a “real” Nobel, but it is pretty impressive nonetheless.

4 responses to Why Study Economics?


    You are right on both counts Geoff. The “naming” (or appeal to Alfred’s original intentions) point seems a silly one by my lights as well, and a thin cover for the type of aversion you speak of.

    By the way, I should make clear that I do not necessarily believe that the gap between economics and “real” sciences is as large as some. But even accepting those arguments,I believe that the proposition that economics is not a “real science” does not address its meaningful contributions to policy.


    True enough. I don’t dispute the underlying contention that economics isn’t a science quite like the other sciences that get Nobels. I just think that the implicit argument that this is true in part because Alfred Nobel didn’t endow a prize for economics (and we shouldn’t sully his excellent judgment now) is a silly one. Beyond that, I take issue with the contentions that a) the world is made worse off if people even believe economics might be in the same class as physics, and b) that people must so believe if economics has its own “Nobel” — again I ask, do people think literature is a science? At root, whatever the slight logic of the argument, its true origins quite clearly lie in an ideological aversion to the use of economics in policy decisions. It’s just not about whether economics is or is not a true “science,” or whether it is an affront to Alfred to award a prize to economics in his name. That’s just cover.


    I am, of course, sympathetic to your suggestion that categorizing economists with “real scientists” can, at most, amount to harmless error.

    While there is aesthetic value in much of economic theory, I am a believer that the primary contribution of economics comes from contributions to policy, i.e. improving welfare. Perhaps this characteristic distinguishes economics from “real” sciences? Maybe this feature makes economics sufficiently unlike the decidedly hard sciences such that Nobel consideration is inappropriate, though I admit to not fully understanding this argument.

    Hal Varian has an excellent piece about this point where he writes that an economist is better compared to an engineer than a physicist (or to a doctor rather than biologist, etc.). One can certainly quarrel about the magnitude of this contribution, or whether it is properly worthy of Nobel consideration (and I think it is), but there should not be much debate about its existence.


    At the risk of pissing off Brian Leiter (not, it would seem, a very good idea), I have always wondered at the “the Economics Nobel is not really a Nobel” meme. I mean, other than pettiness, what other explanation is there for the insistence that Alfred didn’t authorize a prize for economics, so the so-called Economics Nobel isn’t really in the same class as the other ones? The implication is that Economics isn’t as “real” a science as the others, but if part of your support for that proposition is that some Swedish guy didn’t think to accord it the same status as, say, physics, your argument may be a little, shall we say, weak. Plainly (and admittedly in Leiter’s case), the problem is that the name confers “science” status on something that doesn’t, in some people’s minds, deserve it. But is that really true? Do people think literature and peace are sciences because they have Nobel prizes? Would it help if someone established a Nobel prize in philosophy?