Why Colby needs an economics class for government majors

As a double-major in government and economics, I have often had the pleasure of being one of the few people in the room to whom the oft-repeated comment, “You’d have to ask the economists on the third floor,” or the flip-side, “You’d have to ask the Government Department about that one,” does not apply. 

In economics classes, policy issues—minimum wage, taxes, government spending, etc.—are constantly shunted to the realm of the Government Department.  Students are asked to simply take fiscal policy changes as given in economics classes, as if government decisions are made in a vacuum, at the whim of some omniscient being responsible for creating hypothetical examples and questions for problem sets and exams. 

In reality, such policies are the product, or outputs, of the political system associated with a given economy.  Yes, it’s true.  The government spending portion of the GDP equation can be modeled, despite what students are told, and it is modeled only one flight of stairs away from the economics department at Colby College.  Conversely, students studying government are often exposed to economic concepts such as GDP, the GINI coefficient, exchange rates, and so on. 

Moreover, government students are presented with assertions concerning the political effects of changes in these economic variables without first being offered the opportunity to understand what they mean, how they are measured, and their political significance.  It seems, given the level of interconnectedness between economics and government, that some level of mutual understanding is necessary for a true understanding of issues in either field.  Economic projections mean nothing in the absence of an understanding of the likely fiscal policy outputs of a given regime, and political incentive structures are nearly impossible to disentangle from those of the economic sort. 

For those reasons, I would submit that Colby could improve the quality of the education it provides in both departments by creating classes in each major designed to offer students an understanding of what it might look like when one department picks up where the other leaves off.   In short, how does a political system create fiscal policy outputs, and how does do economic trends affect political outcomes?

If it is indeed true that an education in either area could be meaningfully enhanced by better understanding of the other, what might a class look like that could begin to solve this inadequacy?  In the economics department, an overview of political systems and incentive structures seems like a good start.  Then, perhaps, a review of how economic outcomes have been major determinants of political trajectories in countries like South Korea, China, Germany and elsewhere.  Finally, an attempt to discern how well political actors, institutions, and values are able to pragmatically output ‘correct’ economic policy seems like an excellent way to leave every economics student quite depressed. 

In the Government Department, a basic overview of the theory of the firm and profit-maximizing behavior would marry itself well conceptually to the idea of an individual-level incentive structure perceived by political actors—considered side-by-side, this would allow students to begin to confront the difference between the clear, quantitative truths of financial decision-making and the murky, dually subjective and objective criteria of political actors. 

Next, an overview of macroeconomic theory focused on the money market, IS-LM analysis, and the AS-AD model would offer students an excellent basis for understanding the likely effects of policy outputs.  Finally, as in the other proposed class, an attempt to discern how well political outputs are connected to economic logic would be sure to maintain a level of parity between the depression experienced by newly-government infused economics students and that experienced by these newly-able-to-define-the-word-parity government students.

All joking aside, it is time to confront the fact that it is insufficient to be told by our professors that we’d have to check with another department to find a substantive answer to a relevant question.  Not only do I think every government student hoping to truly understand their field needs a good dose of economics professors like David Findlay, Dan LaFave or Andreas Waldkirch, but I believe that every economics student would be mistaken to believe that government professors like Giulian Deneaux, Tony Corrado or Walter Hatch are unnecessary to an accurate sense of our truly political economy. I don’t mean to suggest that students could fully understand the diversity of topics listed above from only a single semester of study.  However, simple exposure to this range of topics would surely be possible in that timeframe and would certainly enhance the studies of students in both areas.

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