The Undergraduate Economics Curriculum at the University of Cape Town: Part II

At the end of Part I of this comment on the UCT economics curriculum, I identified two further issues for immediate consideration: the nature of textbooks, and problems arising from academic incentives. The textbook issue also raises the important role of history of economic thought and economic history courses.

Continue reading “The Undergraduate Economics Curriculum at the University of Cape Town: Part II”

Links: universities&growth, good podcasts and bad philosophy of economics, external validity, etc

Papers, blogs, podcasts

Do universities cause economic growth? Anna Valero and John Van Reenen have a paper saying yes

In my past engagements with higher education policy this question has annoyed me a lot, and I’ll post more about that in future posts. I get even more annoyed when I see definitive headlines based on papers with questionable identification strategies. We need a bit more humility about empirical work.


In which regard, I’ve recently been catching-up on some EconTalk podcasts. I enjoyed these two:

Heckman on econometrics, with some useful comments about ‘Hayekian humility’, failures of prediction and the like.

Phillip Tetlock on ‘superforecasting’


Even closer to the subject of my own recent work, two interesting-looking papers relating to RCTs and external validity:

Bentley Macleod on an issue I’m interested in: performance of subjective expertise

Banerjee, Chassang and Snowberg on decision-theoretic considerations relevant to external validity

I covered aspects of this in my PhD and published working paper on external validity, but look forward to reading this contribution.


Chris Blattman has a useful summary of recent developments among development NGOs relating to basic income grants (an idea that was debated at some length in South Africa over a decade ago):


Came across a truly terrible piece on experimental methods in economics and ‘economics imperialism’. The saddest part is that this is often the only kind of ‘philosophising’ tolerated in parts of the discipline.

I had similar sentiments about this related podcast with Russ Roberts.

I have one draft paper and a sketch of a research programme on this topic, and the coverage given here to the issue is really bad. (That’s as nicely as I can put it). Classify both as links to avoid


A lot’s being said about the Panama Papers. People and companies should not evade taxes. The notable absence of some countries’ citizens from this particular database, though, does raise some interesting questions about possibly selective leaks.

Events and initiatives

On the 28th of April Thandika Mkandawire is speaking in Cape Town on panel discussion entitled:

Africa and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Progress, Problems and Prospects

Details here


In London, CEMMAP recently held a one-day conference on econometrics for public policy:

Looks like a great programme.


Economic Research Southern Africa has a new initiative to train academic economists in quantitative methods:

On the one hand, this is a good idea. On the other hand, it’s a real slap in the face for those who have these skills but still can’t get academic jobs. However, it usefully supports a point I’ve been arguing for some time: in most disciplines, academics in South Africa are amongst the most protected of workers regardless of their competence or effort. (For international readers: in South Africa formalised ‘tenure’ processes don’t really exist.) Much more on both issues in future posts.


Forthcoming deadlines

The Campbell Collaboration annual conference is open for submissions:

The economics curriculum at UCT: Part I

It would be no exaggeration to say that I have taken a critical interest in UCT’s economics curriculum for over fifteen years, and some of the associated dissatisfaction has shaped my career and approach to the discipline as a whole. As an undergraduate majoring in economics I was bored stiff for the first two years by being taught how to regurgitate graphs and solve equations from American textbooks. I seriously thought of quitting – this was not what I had signed-up for. There were some useful ideas about the functioning of markets and individual behaviour, but they were so obviously crude, decontextualised and evidently infused with free-market, anti-poor (pro-rich) ideology that as a student it was not possible to separate what was useful from what was irrelevant, implausible or ideological.

For example, minimum wages were stated as definitively reducing employment (with no reference to possible effects on effort or aggregate demand), but higher taxes on the rich were stated as negatively affecting economic activity (without any reference to benefits from public expenditure or reduced inequality).

Economist readers might want to note that this was 10 years after publication of Akerlof and Yellen’s paper on efficiency wages. It was 5 years after publication of Card and Krueger’s landmark book on minimum wages, challenging the ‘conventional wisdom’ on the minimum wage in economics with empirical evidence. I had to find that book in the library on my own to get an alternative view. Scanning library shelves also led me to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which introduces the notion of conspicuous consumption, and JK Galbraith’s History of Economic Thought.

Our lecturers did little to assist: they were mostly graduate students, rushing to get through material that they did not have the incentive, inclination, or intellectual foundations, to critically evaluate or present differently. Only in the third year electives did I finally find a reasonable amount of intellectual stimulation, evidence of alternative views and explicit reference to the South African context.

For this reason, I am sympathetic to the recent criticism of UCT’s curriculum by Ihsaan Bassier. He notes, among other things, that:

“I find myself at the end of my undergraduate degree without the tools to interrogate the economic situation surrounding me”.

“Critical economic thinking is simply not taught during an economics undergraduate degree. The department attempts to push mathematical concepts, but only succeeds in promoting rote learning, characteristic of a production centre for ideology.”

Such concerns can be located in broader, international student movements to change the undergraduate curriculum. In general, I support those movements as well. However, they have a tendency of conflating a number of important issues: ideology, academic incentives, bureaucratic obstacles, fetishisation of quantitative methods and the problematic status of economics as a ‘science’.

Students are driven by a well-founded instinct that something is wrong, but they struggle to decipher what the causes are. In my view this is entirely understandable given that undergraduates cannot be expected to have a uniformly better understanding of the discipline than those teaching them! But muddling of issues is often used by those favouring the status quo to deflect otherwise legitimate criticism. The points I make below can be applied as much at Harvard or Oxford as at UCT, because they pertain to deep problems with economics as a discipline and universities as institutions, but I will use UCT as my working example – having studied and lectured there.

Continue reading “The economics curriculum at UCT: Part I”