Friday, December 26, 2008

A Question about Learning Economics

From a reader:

Dear Prof Mankiw,

First time e-mailer, long time reader of the blog.

I'm currently a Sophomore at University of Wisconsin-Madison planning to major in Economics having just completed the intermediate Econ courses there. During my spare time, I love to do what most other students probably would consider crazy, and just read economics books no matter what the viewpoint of the author is. I had my first Economics courses in high school taught by a Friedman disciple, my Intermediate Micro by another very Chicago school economist, and my intermediate Macro taught by (from what I was able to judge) a Neo-Keynesian.

Every time I've gone into office hours with these professors, I've always come away with the attitude of "I can definitely see their point". I have never felt like they forced their beliefs on me, which is a good thing. I fully admit that I'm a young foolish college student, so whenever these professors or teachers talk to me, I'm usually pretty open to whatever they say. I've gotten into some very spirited debates with my Macro professor, but it's always been completely respectful and very thought-provoking.

So I guess my question, although loaded, is this: What advice would you give to a college undergrad being exposed to so many different ideologies at the same time? I can go from being told by my ECON 301 (Intermediate Micro) professor that we should, for example, let the banks fail and let the market do it's work, and I can see his point. I can then go talk to my ECON 302 (Intermediate Macro) professor and he will say that it's ludicrous to not do SOMETHING regarding the financial crisis, and I can also see his point.

I know there is never a set in stone answer for what economic should dictate,but would you say that the way you see Economics today was slowly cemented as you progressed in your studies?

Thanks again, love your blog, happy holidays.

-[name withheld]

Three observations that, I hope, add up to an answer:

1. The current economic environment is a particularly hard time to learn economics. There are a lot of topics about which economists agree, but the diagnosis and best remedy for the current economic downturn are not among them. It is therefore no surprise that your econ profs express disparate views about the appropriate policy in the current environment. Don't read too much into this fact. I bet there are many other topics about which these economists would come to similar conclusions. Ask them about rent control, or international trade, or Pigovian taxes, for instance, if you want to find broad areas of agreement.

2. You are lucky that you have professors with different viewpoints. Your job, as a budding economist, is to learn from all of them. Ideally, at the end of the day, you should be able to understand and appreciate (although not necessarily agree with) each point of view. You should try to construct in your mind a debate between your Friedmanite professor and your Keynesian professor. What points would each raise, and how would the other respond?

3. As you come to grips with these various points of view, you will be in a better position to judge which you find most cogent. But don't expect to reach unequivocal positions easily. In my view, it is best to consider all knowledge as tentative. The best scholars maintain an open-mindedness and humility about even their own core beliefs. Excessive conviction is often a sign of insufficient thought, which in turn may be derived from a certain pig-headedness. Intellectual maturity comes when you can maintain the right balance between informed belief and honest skepticism. You sound like you are on the right path.