This I Believe

Paul - Dallas, Texas
Entered on June 28, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: science

Becoming an Economist

I once walked into a university library and vowed not to leave until I had figured economics out. I don’t mean just for an exam or a paper. I wanted to understand it, or at least understand some part of it, in a way that no one had understood it before.

As an undergrad, it was the fearlessness of the subject that first drew me to it. In classes we talked about the most taboo of subjects. An analysis of the potential market for vote selling is one entertaining lecture that I remember. It made me think that being trained in the subject, becoming an economist, must make a person unafraid to point logic at any problem, and follow wherever it might lead.

Later I loved economics for the same reason that so many hate it, its cold precision and rationality. I loved the way its theorems and proofs could cut through the rhetorical mush of political discourse.

I knew, of course, that many did not share this faith. It is the dismal science, after all, a study in scarcity. But it confronts the dismal with hope of something better. And economics is also about plenty. It’s about turning nothing into something. It’s about the great, throbbing engine of human creativity, and resources being transformed into goods and services. In the end it’s about making a living from the earth, and that’s something we can probably all believe in.

I believed in it so much I wanted to make my contribution to it, like any good PhD student should. That’s why I stubbornly stayed in the library that afternoon as the hours passed and no great new insight dawned. I think I saw it as the culmination of all the years I’d spent studying the subject. I had learned what others could teach me. But could I take the baton and carry it further?

Unfortunately, I didn’t really figure out anything that had not been figured out before. I came to realize that I was not going to be coming up with an insight that would rewrite the textbooks. I would not be telling the world any great new truths about economics.

But economics is about making the most of what you have. And I could, maybe, tell people an old truth about economics, something that would help them see it in a whole new light.