Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Diminishing Returns: Too Many Economists and English Professors?

By Richard Vedder

My dear friend Al Eckes, emailing from his Florida getaway, sent me a piece from the London Telegraph, one of my favorite newspapers. The writer made the point that so-called expert economists miserably failed to predict and correct the financial crisis of 2008. Old fashioned ideas like insisting that lenders require collateral for loans, have a good credit history,etc., were ignored, and economists were quick to endorse new schemes that, retrospectively, were disastrous.

Part of the problem, of course, is that economists have become smitten with Physics Envy, namely a notion that respectability requires them to reduce rather straightforward economic principles to elaborate mathematical models. Most new economists do not know much about the institutional make-up of the Federal Reserve System or the International Monetary Fund, have no idea about the causes of the Great Depression or even when it was, etc. A lack of historical perspective, combined with a lack of basic emphasis on, well, the basics, is the problem. Most of the critical elements of economics are (or should be) taught in the first five weeks of a Principles of Economics course, yet Ph.D. economists do obscure work on tangential issues making dubious assumptions leading to results that are hard to understand, of questionable importance and, most importantly, of limited or no validity.

The late Paul Samuelson was brilliant, and wrote elegent mathematical treatises on a variety of topics in economics. But was he wise in the most funademntal of all senses? As one economist friend (of some reputation himself) put it once, "Samuelson was on the wrong side of every major public policy debate." Are we putting mathematical geeks in the classroom who downplay important economic concepts like opportunity cost, scarcity, and present vs. future value, in order to show off their math drenched geekiness? The Law of Diminishing Returns strikes again. Too many economists, or education professors, or sociologists (especially sociologists) or English professors can lead to foolishness, wasted resources, reduced learning, and rising costs.

What's more, this problem is not limited to economics. The schools of education are teaching platitudes, dubious ideologies, and irrelevancies for the most part. Non-education majors participating in the Teach for America program do better, on average, I suspect than education majors teaching similar students similar things. English departments have so-called scholars writing thousands of papers annually on obscure writers, or on famous writers to an extent well beyond the point of providing anything new of value (Mark Bauerlein's example of the 22,000 articles on Shakespeare since 1985 is a case in point).

All of this leads to me to ask: even in some so-called core disciplines such as English and economics, are we really giving our students "knowledge" or even "insights" of great value? Has our obsession with impressing our colleagues in our quest to win fame and higher salaries crowded out some good, old-fashioned teaching of eternal verities and beauties --be it Gray's Elegy (which reads as well in its third century of existence as it did in its first) or the Law of Demand?

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