Of Laffer Curves and Liberal Arts

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Feb 08, 2006 2:54 PM

Incentives matter. Any economist worth his freely traded salt knows that.

According to Career Journal.com (a WSJ product), college students are being incentivized right out of their namby-pamby women's studies and sociology majors and into the world of graphs and charts and $40,000 starting salaries.

Colleges and universities in the United States awarded 16,141 degrees to economics majors in the 2003-2004 academic year, up nearly 40 percent from five years earlier, according to John J. Siegfried, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University. Siegfried tracks 272 colleges and universities around the country for the Journal of Economic Education.

The number of college students majoring in economics has been rising since the mid-1990s, according to the government's National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, the number majoring in political science and government has declined and the number majoring in history and sociology has barely grown.

More of the next generation is studying supply and demand and fewer are studying Other People's Money and How to Spend It 101? Wow, the future's so bright, I don't gotta finish this popular mid-80s song lyric.

Economics is the most popular major at NYU and Harvard. This article suggests that students are beginning to understand that an education in economics is the best way to understand a complex global economy and succeed in it. I like this epiphany from a 19-year-old Brown student:

Like many people whose eyes glaze over at a supply-and-demand curve, Nicholas Rendler, a 19-year-old student at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, says he finds economics boring. But he has gravitated to the topic anyway: He chose a major combining economics, sociology, and anthropology because he thinks economics is crucial to understanding the world.

Economics can be very frustrating, but it is the world we are currently operating in and we need the basic framework," he says.

It's true. We do need that framework, and too many of my generation don't have it. Instead, they see the world only through the thick, black frames of those emo-kid glasses on their big, mopey, socially concerned eyes (Don't get me wrong, I think they're adorable and kind. I just also think they're wrong). Through those frames, capitalism is nothing but The Man's method of keeping us down, you know, man? And the only way to restrain The Man and lift the rest is to forcibly take more of the money he earns.

This kind of thinking leads to a frightening prevalence of faith in liberalism and hope for socialism, which I think I've mentioned before. And who wants more of that?

I would hope that college students getting a little more exposure to the rules that govern a market economy would convince some of them that it's not a necessary evil, but a wondrous, flexible, reliable benefit to all mankind.

All right, maybe they won't go that far, but I'd be happy if a few more people came out of college knowing that a command economy does not work. Because if you can see that, there's hope for someday seeing that big government programs are not always the best answer to every problem.

Of course, I guess you never know what will come out of a shift like this. You never know what kind of economics professors any school has. My little brother studied economics, and was pleased to encounter far more free-market/conservative professors than he did in any other nook in the UNC campus. My impression is that that's the case with many business and economics departments.

The last 20-something socialist I talked to, however, is working on a master's in economics at Davidson. And, I was a namby-pamby English and journalism major, so go figure. (My interest in free-market economics, by the way, came from a childhood watching government programs incentivize people to do all kinds of irresponsible and hurtful things. I wondered why, tried to figure it out, and in the process became an economic conservative. I kick myself sometimes for not studying it more in school.)

I'm just hoping maybe, just maybe, this means we could end up with a generation of community leaders and politicians and voters who could see that Medicare and Social Security are problems to be solved, not programs to be expanded. And then, you know, solve the problems.

We'll see, but it seems like a pretty cool and pretty dramatic development.