On the use of math in economics…

As I prepare my course in managerial economics, I have tried to put myself in my students’ shoes and ask why all the math?  This is a particularly relevant question because my students are enrolled in Baylor’s executive MBA program, and they (quite understandably) have no interest in becoming professional economists. 

In his recent blog entry entitled “Mathematics and Economics”, Paul Krugman notes, among other things, that “Math in economics can be extremely useful”, and that math can serve an essential analytic function by helping to clarify one’s thoughts.  Some other samplings from the economics blogosphere include the following observations:

  1. Greg Mankiw (cf. http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/09/why-aspiring-economists-need-math.html) notes, among other things, that “Math is good training for the mind. It makes you a more rigorous thinker.”
  2. Jason DeBacker (cf. http://www.econosseur.com/2009/02/why-economists-use-so-much-math.html) makes the following observations: “Math provides a common language for economic thought”, and “Math helps to quantify tradeoffs.”  He also notes that “Using math puts in plain sight the assumptions that lie behind a model and the mechanisms at work in the model”, which is consistent with Professor Krugman’s observation noted above.

However, I am also reminded of the famous quote “it is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong” which is commonly (and incorrectly) attributed to the famous economist John Maynard Keynes. (For what it’s worth, O’Donnell (2006) notes (see p. 403, footnote 14) that “This saying so aptly captures a strand in Keynes’s thought that he is frequently, but wrongly, treated as its author”; apparently, the original source for this memorable quote was a contemporary of Keynes by the name of Wildon Carr (see Shove (1942: 323)). 

References

O’Donnell, R., 2006, “Keynes’s Principles of Writing (Innovative) Economics,” Economic Record 82 (259), 396-407.

Shove, G.F. (1942), “The Place of Marshall’s Principles in the Development of Economic Theory,” Economic Journal, 52 (208), 294–329.

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