The Economics Communications Problem

Updated: May 28

If you are or were an undergraduate student in economics, surely you have experienced the trials of seeking a graduate studies program in economics that suits your interests. For me, my journey to economics itself was not planned for many years prior. In middle school, I had dreams of being a prominent filmmaker. But in high school, I fell in love with the hard sciences. I would spend vast amounts of time watching online videos about science and even had a giant poster of the periodic table of elements above my desk. My favourite type was of science was astronomy. The bulk of my hard science knowledge that sticks with me to this very day revolves around cosmological evolution and the nature of the universe. And thus, at the time, the plan was simple. I will do a bachelor's degree in physics then find a graduate program in astronomy.

Unfortunately, my science studies during my first year ended up being like running face-first into a brick wall. Suddenly I found myself unable to pass first-year calculus, physics and chemistry exams. Although I had done reasonably well in my humanities courses, I was on the verge of academic dismissal at the end of my first year and quickly needed a significant change of focus. I had always been very interested in politics. In fact, I was always more intrigued by politics than I had ever been into filmmaking or hard science. But I didn’t feel comfortable with only having the credentials of a sole political science major. I felt like I needed something scientific to guide a potential career path. My mother suggested economics and it didn't take long until I fell in love. Economics turned out to be the perfect blend of science and humanities of which I had been craving. In fact, only a few classes into my first economics course, the professor mentioned that the same university offers a master of development economics program. They said that those who graduate from that program typically end up work for governments advising on infrastructure and general economic development projects. At the time, that potential career path sounded perfect. To this very day, I love researching and following all local development projects and keeping collections of their renderings.

Fast forward to my final undergraduate year, and my master's application was submitted. I waited anxiously to hear my fate, setting expectations as low as possible. Sure, I had the GPA requirements for my previous 60 credit hours of study. But the web page did not list the grade requirements for calculus and statistics. Both of which I had managed to pass, but only just. In the end, it wasn’t to be. I was informed that although the web page does not mention the requirement specifically, applicants were required to have achieved a letter grade of at least “B” in the classes of calculus and statistics. That information had the value of $115 to me because that was the application fee I had paid. I was asked whether or not I would be willing to re-take those classes in the hopes of achieving those required letter grades. To which my immediate emotional response was not no, but “hell no!”

I am someone who writes and publishes my thoughts and ideas for fun. My favourite part of my undergraduate studies was writing term papers. Why on earth would I want to endure one more second of STEM torture after I could barely pass those classes on the first attempt when I could try pursuing what is perhaps my actual career of fit, journalism? And what if an applicant had the letter grade of “B-“ in both of those first-year classes? Is that a student who is deemed ill-qualified for that program?

It is not as though I had not attempted to search around for other economics graduate studies either. I knew that being declined into the master of development economics program was the end of my hopes for economics graduate studies. All other economics master's programs I found had even more rigorous mathematical requirements than the MDE program. It appears as though there simply does not exist many economics graduate studies options for those who had a 3.4 GPA in 3000 level economics courses but who did not excel in calculus and statistics. For context, at my university, a 3000 level economics course is the highest level required for a bachelor's degree. I was even able to find a Reddit comment that compared trying to find an economics graduate program with light math to finding a chemistry program with light lab work. But where is the graduate program for an economics student who studies economics more from the humanities side than the STEM side? Let alone a program for students who could pass calculus and statistics without excelling in them. Instead, all economics master's programs seem to be centred around the mathematics of and performing regression analysis. Regression analysis is a form of statistical modelling that estimates the relationships between variables. When using these statistical methods to find the relationships between variables for economic study, the specific field of study is referred to as econometrics. In many of my undergraduate courses, we observed the results of regression analyses and wrote about their implications.

However, it is not as though higher-level economic study must always require the advanced calculus and statistics credentials necessary to perform regression analysis. For example, what if there were a master of economic thought, a master of economic policy, a master of behavioural economics or a master of economic demography? Would they all require someone to excel in calculus and statistics? It is pretty hard to understand why a school that separates sociology & gender studies does not carry anything resembling those programs. Studying economics at a master's level does not necessarily have to equate to studying econometrics. Econometrics may be a massive part of how economic studies are performed, but econometrics and economics should not be effectively interchangeable. If they become interchangeable, there is a risk of alienation, precisely what I have experienced. For some perspective, I reached out to Ph.D. Economist for a reaction to my suggested master's programs. Teresa Cyrus is a professor of economics at Dalhousie University and achieved the award for excellence in teaching from the faculty of science in 2019.

“Understanding causality perhaps does not require calculus or statistics, but moving from an undergraduate degree to a graduate degree is equivalent to moving from being a consumer of knowledge to being a producer of knowledge, and being able to show causality through mathematical proofs or through statistical analysis does in fact require a higher level of math and statistics than you might think. Even history of thought would require enough knowledge to allow you to evaluate the work of economists. I think if you want to find a field that doesn't require calculus or statistics, you would have to look to interdisciplinary fields such as public policy or political economy.” - Teresa Cyrus, Ph.D.

It is clear that I have underestimated the mathematical prowess that may be necessary for a master's degree in many specific areas of economics. But it is reassuring to know that an economics expert does see some opportunities for masters-level policy study for students with my experiences. Unfortunately, none of the three universities in my city offer a master's of political economy. To study such a program, I would have to relocate to a city 1,500 kilometres away. Which only causes me to wonder how such a program could not be done remotely. Surely the program almost entirely consists of reading, writing, presenting and interacting, which can be done via computer. But there certainly is a lower degree of opportunity for the economic study of students who did not excel in calculus and statistics.

What could be the cause of this phenomenon? Could it be as simple as a financial incentive? Presumably, as it is the regression studies themselves that produce funding for departments. Therefore, the departments have no financial incentive to organize graduate programs around other areas of economics or economics writing when they assume that those who can perform the regressions have all the writing ability necessary to communicate the implications of the results effectively. After all, anyone who has majored in economics has had to write at least a few term papers. However, that is mere speculation, and professor Cyrus rejected the idea of a financial incentive issue as an explanation.

“[Interdisciplinary fields] are often cash cows for the universities, so they are expensive. The emphasis on math and stats in traditional economics programs in Canada is not for any monetary reason, but rather reflects the fact that most economists feel that these skills are important, and so your grades in those classes are indicative of your ability to further hone those skills at the graduate level.” - Teresa Cyrus, Ph.D.

Regardless of whether or not there is an incentive issue creating the problem, I believe I can explain some potential negative consequences of the problem itself. I am a student who has been deep into the hard sciences as well as the humanities. As mentioned before, my other major is in political science. But I also chose to minor in philosophy because ethics is of the utmost importance to me. The discourse and debate in 3000 level political science and philosophy classes are unique compared to any other subject I've ever taken. It is uniquely intellectual, philosophical, captivating and thought-provoking. Those 3000 level classes around ethics, justice and human rights will make you question your entire basis of what is right or wrong and how we accomplish the goals implied from such conclusions. It is the kind of enlightening study and discourse that can turn meat-eaters into vegans. All of that practice that political science and philosophy students endure in debating comes in handy when explaining to the public why some arguments are more logical than others. That is not the sort of thing that often happens in advanced economics classes. Sure, there is a modicum of debating others about economic policy, but most of the time is spent trying to understand graph-based models.

The lack of debate experience garnered from undergraduate economics classes could materialize in some public relations issues. For example, look to the public's understanding of economic issues where there is academic consensus. Does the public understand that the overall gains of free trade are larger than the overall gains from local employment? No. The public’s support of free trade oscillates. All while the economists' consensus on free trade is rock-solid in favour. Does the public understand that fiscal deficits are required in times of economic downturns? No. They think that the U.S. debt was a huge problem in 2012 when the U.S. unemployment rate was still between 8 and 9 percent. That is not even taking into consideration the fact that if your growth is higher than the interest rates, having a fiscal deficit is not a grave concern. For another example, the economist consensus on rent control is clear. But does the public understand that rent prices being too high is solved in the long run by a greater supply of low & middle-income housing? No. In fact, many still think that rent control measures are the answer. Does the public understand that there are vast amounts of economic gains to be had from getting rid of antiquated and inefficient jobs such as human cashiers in favour of self-checkout kiosks? No. In reality, many people think the kiosks are just taking jobs away from people. Speaking of taking jobs away, the publics' view of immigration is nowhere near as clear as the academic consensus around the economic upsides of immigration.

There is without a doubt a problem of communications in the field of economics. It appears that economists could undoubtedly use some experienced humanities graduates arguing on their behalf. If not judged by the examples mentioned above, then evaluated by the sheer amount of times I have heard an ordinary person suggest that we ought to" run the country like a business." Even though business ownership and fiscal/monetary policy are practically on different planets of expertise, the public does not know that because there is an economics communication problem.

I don't want to let the most prominent news media organizations off the hook for their role in this issue, either. As it specifically pertains to the last real-world example mentioned, I cannot think of many news shows or media personalities that do not differentiate between "economics "and" business." I distinctly remember a few years ago that whenever matters of economics were about to be discussed on CTV news, the guest of choice would be a "professor of business "or BNN's Amanda Lang. Amanda Lang is someone who studied architecture and is a business journalist by trade. So why on earth would she be the go-to opinion giver on something like whether or not wages should be tied to inflation instead of someone who has economics credentials but also the writing and debate experience such as Paul Krugman. Those who are most knowledgeable about the stock market are not likely to be most knowledgeable about economist consensus.

Some who read this may wonder why humanities students such as myself cannot simply be content with achieving a bachelor's degree in economics and pursuing a career in journalism without having an additional master's degree in economics. The reason is that a bachelor's degree is not necessarily indicative of one's knowledge and commitment to the field and its material. Some individuals with bachelor's degrees in economics make economic claims that nobody who has taken even introductory economics should ever be making, such as past unemployment claims of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This opinion piece is not meant to take anything away from the importance of the existing economics graduate studies. Not only do they achieve funding that is necessary for the departments themselves to exist, but the actual scientific research around the mathematical regressions and models informs us objectively of the economic phenomenon. My point is that we should not expect individuals to meet the requirements of both advanced math and advanced writing and argumentation. Nobody should be expected to orchestrate regression mathematics while also being a humanities-inclined and experienced writer who interprets and explains regression results to the public in a way that can effectively shape their ideas and change their minds. One of the 3000 level economics classes I took was titled "The History of Economic Thought." If that undergraduate course exists and we allow Bachelor of Arts students to major in economics, perhaps the idea of humanities-driven economics masters programs such as political economy becoming far more common is not so far-fetched after all.