Why I Don’t Say I’m an Econ Major

When people ask me what my major was or what my degree is in I usually say “mathematics.” I’ve been encouraged a number of times, particularly by my dad, to not leave off the “and economics” because I did double major. So let me explain why I typically only claim mathematics.

Microeconomics versus Macroeconomics

Economics is the study of how economies work and how entities within the economy (individuals and firms) interact with one another. Within economics there are two distinct subfields: microeconomics and macroeconomics. Though very related, these two subfields are actually quite different from one another.

Microeconomics studies the behavior of individuals and firms as they interact in the economy. It studies things like how an individual firm allocates its resources most efficiently to achieve a specific objective (most often profit maximization) or how individuals make consumption decisions to maximize utility when they have limited time and money to allocate. It is a very well defined discipline in which economists agree on most things. It is very mathematical and much of it is rigorously defined. It involves a lot of mathematical analysis to make optimal decisions under some definition of “optimal.”

Macroeconomics, on the other hand, is the study of the economy as a whole and looks at things like unemployment, inflation, monetary policy and fiscal policy in the economy. In contrast to microeconomics, macroeconomics is not as well understood. Economists do agree on a number of aspects of it because it is extremely complex and very difficult to model an economy accurately. Macroeconomics has come a long way in the last few decades but there are still a lot of things that are not fully understood. This is why in the current economic situation many very prominent economists have very divergent views about what the best course of action is.

I personally really enjoy microeconomics. I really fell in love with it the first few days of Economics 380, when the professor started laying out mathematical axioms about how people make decisions, which we then built on for the balance of the semester. My degree heavily emphasizes microeconomics. In contrast, I do not really care for macroeconomics very much. I don’t find it as mathematically rigorous or as interesting. I do appreciate knowing a fair amount about it, particularly in light of the current economic situation, but I am often reluctant to have strong opinions on many policy decisions because I am aware of the extreme complexity of macroeconomic problems and the lack of concrete understanding that macroeconomics has on many important issues. This is not to say that macroeconomists don’t deserve any credit. They do understand a lot; there’s just also a lot they don’t understand fully yet.

In my experience, people have usually heard of both micro- and macroeconomics. When you ask them what the difference is, though, they can’t really tell you, other than that one is “small” and the other is “big.” And when you ask them to describe economics in general, they always describe macroeconomics. Furthermore, when people talk about economists they are almost always meaning macroeconomists. People don’t really know that a microeconomist also exists and they don’t really have any idea what a microeconomist would be.

“Mathematics and Economics”

When I say that I majored in “mathematics and economics,” people always hear the “economics” part and they immediately start thinking about macroeconomics and the current economic crisis. I don’t get the impression that people generally hold macroeconomists in that great of esteem. I don’t blame them, since all you typically hear lately is contradicting things from macroeconomists about how to fix the current global economy. So people almost invariably respond to my major by either starting a discussion about the economy or making some remark about me fixing the economy or me getting a job as an economist.

I don’t really care for either of these responses. On the one hand, I don’t really want to get into a discussion about the economy with everyone that asks me my major. I do enjoy discussing it, but typically only with people that want to intelligently discuss it. I find that just about everyone is very opinionated about what they think is the best way to fix the economy but people often really have no idea what they’re talking about and are not open to the possibility that people who have studied the economy extensively might have insights that they don’t have. So conversations with such people are pointless at best. On the other hand, I don’t really like comments and conversations about me fixing the economy or even about me getting a job as an economist, because I have no desire or intention of doing so. At least not in the sense that most people mean when they say “economist.”

So in sum, when I say “economics” or “economist” I usually mean something far different from what the typical person thinks that I mean. And it’s usually far too tedious (and pointless) to try and explain what I mean because in reality most of them don’t even care. I prefer to simply not have to deal with the issue.

Mathematics versus Economics

Mathematics is inherently superior to economics. Its scope is abstractly all encompassing and it studies structure at a level of abstraction that relieves you of the limitations inherent in specificity. It is a discipline of the mind and of thought and expands your capacity to understand any structure or problem. Because of this, mathematicians are literally “the freest of all thinkers” (Margaret Wertheim).

Economics is simply a special case in mathematics where all the variables have specific names and interpretations. Intellectually it is far less challenging than mathematics. The most difficult aspect of economics is the mathematics it uses, and the mathematics it uses is really quite trivial until you get fairly advanced in economics. I regularly put in far more time and intellectual effort in my math classes and found it far more difficult to get grades comparable to those I achieved relatively easily in my general education or economics classes. I also find that on average you learn far more in a math classes than in any other classes.

Returning to the question of my major, since people don’t really understand what I mean when I tell them I studied economics, the only real benefit in stating both is to emphasize the fact that I double majored and now have two bachelor’s degrees. However, when I do say both majors, economics tends to overshadow mathematics so heavily in people’s minds that they don’t even realize that I said mathematics at all a good portion of the time. It doesn’t seem to matter that I intentionally list mathematics first and tend to emphasize it more.

If the person does hear both majors, they hear them as equal accomplishments and interests and I don’t perceive them that way. Mathematics is my greater interest and it is superior to economics in many ways. I often feel like I am degrading mathematics by placing it as economics’ equal. Therefore, I give mathematics its rightful place as my major and claim economics as a secondary interest when it appropriately doesn’t detract from mathematics. In light of all of this, I think the combined statement “mathematics and economics” is less meaningful and less impressive than the simpler statement “mathematics.”

Accurate Impressions

When people know very little about you, they have to interpolate a lot of conclusions about you based on the small pieces of information that they have. This leads people to ask questions that give the most power in classifying and stereotyping, such as finding out someone’s major. So people’s perception of you can be quite different based on the simply answer “mathematics” versus “mathematics and economics.” If I state both then people come away with the impression that I’ve studied macroeconomics when in reality my primary interest is mathematics and I only have a secondary interest in microeconomics. This is not accurate at all. On the other hand, if I just state “mathematics” then people have a far more accurate picture of what I am interested in and what I have studied. If the conversation persists then I’ll mention that I double majored in economics in the context of explaining what that means.

So that is a brief explanation as to why I typically only claim to be a mathematics major.