Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Quitting Economics

I’ve never had any shame in quitting.  I’ve quit economic theory, I’ve quit macroeconomics—I’ve pretty much quit everything that I’m bad at....If I were to say one of the single best explanations for how I managed to succeed against all odds in the field of economics: it was by being a quitter.  Ever since the beginning, my mantra has been: fail quickly.  If I started with 100 ideas, I’m luck if two or three of those ideas will ever turn into academic papers.  One of my great skills as an economist has been to recognize the need to fail quickly and the willingness to jettison a project as soon as I realize its likely to fail.
—Steven Levitt in Freakonomics Podcast.  Episode: the upside of quitting.  September 29, 2011.

I had a moment as a Ph.D candidate when I mentally went on strike. My love for economics is deep and sincere, but economics at the grad level saps all the power and wonder away. I took an economic development course, believing that this course would not entail the act of modeling for the sake of modeling (which was all I had done for 1.5 years). Of the many things I envisioned we would study, among them were cultural variability and its implications for savings and investment; the impacts of political institutions as they evolve in history; an empirical examination of how the poor live, work, and interact with one another; and how clashes between different social classes inhibits social harmony.

Instead, we spent all semester learning how to modify a utility function to account for the fact that many peasants consume what they produce, and can store the good—I am exaggerating, but not much.

What kept me going was that once I had my Ph.D I could return to the undergraduate level, where I believe real economics thrives. Now, quitting is not a consideration.

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