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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

You’re majoring in … what? The woes of an economics major

Published: March 26, 2010
Section: Opinions

It happens every time I’m discussing the future with any of my more activist-minded friends. They’re excitedly telling me about how close they are to completing their Tofu and Arugula Studies major, and I’m listening and nodding politely, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. They make the predictable joke about how nonexistent their career prospects are, and I smile and assure them that things will work out somehow. Then, finally, it happens:

“So what are you majoring in?”

I shift my head to the side and mumble something under my breath.

“I’m sorry?”

Well, here goes nothing. I take a deep breath and, in a low, self-effacing voice, say, “Economics.”

“Economics? Really? Why?”

Shoot! Once again, I feel like a corporate sell-out, completely profit-driven and, ugh, pre-professional. Like a defendant called to the witness stand after pleading guilty, I begin my standard self-defense, hoping against hope that I can somehow be forgiven for my sin.

Obviously, I’m embellishing quite a bit with the preceding story, but it’s true that I do feel the need to justify my choice of major from time to time. After all, I also looked at the economics major as being somewhat soulless before I became one myself. Even now, I occasionally fear that I’m just setting myself up to go into big business and become another cog in the capitalist machine, that the intense gravity of the American rat race will prove too strong for me to avoid. But I also see a lot of potential in the rules of economics, and it inspires both the rationalist and the humanist sides of my brain simultaneously in a way that no other field of study can.

I entered Brandeis intending to be a Politics major. Throughout high school, following politics had become one of my hobbies, and I had become involved in multiple local campaigns.

I was excited to take that interest to the next level and plan my entire academic future around political action. However, I realized after several semesters that politics as an academic field didn’t hold nearly the same fascination for me, that it wasn’t scientific enough for my rigorously methodical thought process and that it devoted too much attention to how the game was played. Policy was what I actually wanted to study; implementing it, not so much.

Taking Intro to Economics, however, completely altered my existing worldview. It seemed like every day, ideas that I had taken for granted were either being challenged or being explained to me in new, deeper ways. Already, I began to realize how vapid the mainstream dialogue on economic issues could be, and I was filled with excitement at how much more there was to learn. Everything we talked about could be distilled down to objective mathematical language, yet their implications could fundamentally alter the lifestyles of billions of people for the better.

I think that many people assume that the goal of economics is to maximize profit, simply because it tells you how to maximize profit. However, I like to view economics as more of a series of concrete rules, no more responsible for the worst excesses of capitalism than physics is for the hydrogen bomb. These rules can become the vehicles for actualizing our principles in the world, so long as we don’t make the mistake of substituting them for our principles.

Sure, economics can tell you that any taxation will by necessity incur a deadweight loss. But if you enter with the goal of restoring greater equality of wealth and providing necessities like health care and the opportunity for higher education to every person in the country, economics can also tell you how to best structure the tax code to make that possible.

Unfortunately, the average level of economic understanding in our culture is very low, and our politicians find it much easier to pander to this ignorance rather than to do anything about it.

Our school system doesn’t help much; think of how much time you spent in high school studying economics as compared to, say, English, and then think of how much these subjects actually impact our day-to-day lives.

In my eyes, this deficit of knowledge has become one of our major societal ills, one which I believe needs to be solved before we can hope to address many others. Working to fill this gap is a goal that I feel comfortable devoting my life to. I’m not sure how that will manifest itself in my later life, and I know I’m not nearly educated enough to begin working to that end yet, but I already find the prospect of doing so tremendously exciting.