Friday, March 18, 2005

what the bleep am i doing? (part 1)

first of all, let me just say that the title of this post is no way an endorsement of the alluded-to movie, which i think is a crock of bleep. if you don't know what i'm talking about, let it stay that way. if you do, i have made up my mind - i only want to hear from people who agree with me.

now. onto more interesting things. the question is, what is economics? and more specifically, what is economic research? i'm compelled to think about this question for several reasons. first, people often ask me what i do for a living (and vice versa). "i do economic research" is usually my answer, although i'm not sure what impact it has on my interlocutor. second, i am engaged in the process of interviewing candidates to replace me and it often surprises me how little these candidates understand of economic research, though they seek to work at it for 40 hours every week. third, i fear that many of my friends and loved ones have little to no understanding of what i spend every day thinking about. lastly, it's an inherently interesting question, as you'll soon see.

if you open an arbitrary textbook on the subject, you'll find some defintion of economics that uses the phrases "study of", "distribution", "choice", and "scarce resources" in some order, optionally including words like "society" or "money". here's an example from the world bank:

the study of how individuals and societies choose to allocate scarce productive resources among competing alternative uses and to distribute the products from these uses among the members of the society.

note that this is rather broad. if you think about it, this is pretty much equivalent to "the study of human behavior". i am unable to think of a question of human behavior that cannot be re-formulated such that we can pull it under the umbrella of economics, or that might lend itself to an answer using the language of economics.

this a crucial point: i'm not saying that economics gives The Answer to all questions about humans. i'm saying that economics is a toolkit, a set of methodologies and assumptions useful for answering lots of different kinds of questions about humans. there are questions that economics is not very good at answering. for instance, i would be hard pressed to answer the question "why do people believe in god?" using my economic toolkit. but it's certainly possible, nevermind that it would probably be a worthless exercise.

contrary to what many of you might think, economists don't necessarily sit around "studying money". for instance, a paper was published recently that found that if england increased paid maternity leave to one year from the current six months, infant mortality would fall by almost 7%. this was not published in a medical journal, but an economics journal.

in part two, i will describe the process of economic research and contrast it with that of other sciences. i will also tell you about this process from my own perspective and talk about what the bleep i actually do.


Blogger JAC said...

I hope I am not constrained and must agree with Nate. Very interesting beginning. Your definition of economics as having to do with "the allocation of scarce resources" is very similar to one definition of politics that I remember from POS 101. It said: "Politics is the allocation of scarce resources." Could be?
As to whether or not politicians & or elected officials can define God --- Well, that's an interesting thought. God knows some of them think they are God. I await your nect edition... JAC

4:32 PM  
Anonymous greg clinton said...

That's great with the definitions and such - I myself would like to learn more about what exactly you do. But don't you think you're going a little far with "the study of human behavior"? The allocation of scarce productive resources among alternative uses and the distribution of the products leaves out quite a bit, I'm afraid, and I'm not just talking religion. What about art or philosophy? It seems to me that unless a "painter" consists in a person who gets a larger share of the scrace resources "paint" and "brushes" and is then able to distribute the product "paintings", there might be a problem with the scope of your statements. God help me, what about "philosopher"? Person who is allocated more than his share of food, clothing and pencils and who occasionally distributes "books" or "articles"? I'm sure economics is more complicated than that, but lets not get carried away here. Economics deals with a very specific form of human behavior, and while it may wish to apply itself to everything (as most scientific or pseudo-scientific fields do at one point in thier development), it just isn't fair to say that it can be.
cheers on the new blog.

9:17 PM  

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