What Economists Actually Do

The following is quoted from Andy Ross’ keynote speech at the recent Developments in Economics Education conference in Cambridge. Ross is the Deputy Director of the UK’s Government Economic Service, the largest employer of economists in the country.

“Most of the things that economists do don’t even look like economics: adoption policy; money laundering (detecting!)… The range of topics is truly astonishing. From Becker’s early re-widening of mainstream economics, We now analyse

  • Auctions
  • Sex and race discrimination
  • Sport
  • What you can and can’t get on the NHS and why
  • Competition and quality of education
  • Value of time and even life
  • Happiness itself
  • Inner-city dynamics
  • Passenger safety
  • Marriage and divorce: which partner gets the most in marriage?
  • Crime and drugs
  • Social exclusion
  • Immigration
  • Does performance-related pay make people work harder?
  • Are we taxed too much?
  • Is competition always good?
  • Do people gamble rationally on the lottery and on quiz shows on television?
  • What causes wars?
  • Obesity
  • How to match kidneys?
  • Private returns to education (economists do particularly well!)
  • Behavioural economics (engaging classroom experiments)
  • Voting behaviour
  • Social mobility
  • Why are there so many junk media channels, all the same?
  • Why aren’t there petrol stations in the centre of cities?
  • Are cities green?
  • Why are cities so astonishingly productive? What are the agglomeration effects of human beings huddled together?
  • Should we put folic acid in bread?
  • Should nursery care be subsidised?
  • Is Sure Start off to an unsure start?
  • Of course, there’s the climate and the welfare of future generations
  • Yes, all the stuff by Steven Levitt: Do teachers and Sumo wrestlers cheat? Did abortion reduce teenage crime? Do doctors pump up their earnings by performing unnecessary operations?
  • Economics, Socionomics, Bionomics, Freakonomics, Wikinomics, Happinomics… Of course no one wants bollonomics: we’re concerned about peer review and the quality of data. Not everything goes.

Even this list is parochial and narrow. In government, these are just tips of whole new icebergs. I suspect there may be more exciting topics for the economics student than just the economy.”

NB: the opinions presented here are the personal views of Andy Ross and not necessarily official positions of the GES.

Intute Social Sciences blog has more coverage from the conference.

One Response to “What Economists Actually Do”

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