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September 04, 2007



I got dressed down by Mark Thoma for my treatment of mathematics by economists. However, undaunted, I'll go at it again.

Economics deals with limited data. There are a number of standardized methods for trying to abstract this into some sort of mathematical equation. The most common are things like least squares or fitting to a polynomial function.

Economists do this, of course, but they omit things like error bars which are used in the physical sciences to show the degree of uncertainty. Then there is the truism that given a finite number of data points it is always possible to fit some curve to it to the desired degree of accuracy.

It is what happens next that is the problem. From this limited data set economists formulate generalized conclusions. To validate these conclusions requires additional data points which may not be forthcoming for a long time. So the predictive usefulness of the conclusions is not immediately apparent.

The other approach is to formulate a mathematical model and (usually) to overlay it with some explanation based upon one's understanding of human nature or behavior. This leads to such disparate groups as those who think people are altruistic vs those who think humans are selfish.

It appears that many model makers aren't interested in validating their models with data. This is sort of like what happens in physics (my field) the theorists make up the theories and the experimentalists test them.

I'm afraid that I feel that much of the more abstruse mathematical models used in economics are just academic window dressing. Cloistered fields can become quite introspective, one only has to look at English literature criticism to see the effect.

It may be that lesser minds need the mathematics, but if you can't explain your ideas without it then something is seriously wrong.

Dani Rodrik

"...if you can't explain your ideas without it then something is seriously wrong."

Absolutely. But distinguishing a good argument from a bad argument may require more.

Arun Garg

Krugman has written a brilliant essay on this topic also:



I understand the usefulness of math and modeling in Economics. It certainly provides some clarity. However, I am not supportive of economists who then forget that they have a "model", an abstraction of the world, and begin to believe that their model is the world. I find very few economists that are humble enough to admit that about their analysis. Dani, what are your thoughts on this matter? Didn't Ariel Rubenstein write a paper in Econometrica about modeling and stories he tells?


Great - I'm halfway convinced. All you need to do now is to provide me with some sound empirical evidence (consistency, consistency) that there have indeed been fewer erroneous development prescriptions produced by mathed up economists than by the rest of us development folk.

I know this is a big ask, so perhaps you could just confine yourself to one decade. How about the 1980s?


While we are daring each other, how about a single example of a development initiative where the presence or absence of "math" was the root of its failure?


I think this math business is another example of intellectual displacement. More math or less is not really an issue, at least at this level of generality. There are two subtantive questions, however:

1. Is the math being used to elucidate (as Dani Rodrik would like) or to demonstrate technique for its own sake? My experience is that high tech math carries a cachet in itself across much of the profession. This leads to a sort of baroque over-ornamentation at best and, even worse, potentially serious imbalances in the attention given to different types of information and concepts.

2. Does the math, in order to be tractable, impose economically consequential assumptions? My favorite example is convex choice and possibility sets -- not so much by suppressing increasing returns (main diagonal) as interaction effects (off diagonal). Hence the status of economics as an "almost social science".


I certainly agree with the statement of "…if you can't explain your ideas without it then something is seriously wrong." However, I also agree with " … distinguishing a good argument from a bad argument may require more." But we should not forget that economics, in a regular speech, is defined as a social science that studies the production, distribution and consumption of good and services. The definition of economics has passed through many reviews and changes. Adams Smith (1776), for instance, regarded by some as the father of economics, first defines economics as "the science of wealth" or "the science relating to the laws of production, distribution and exchange."
However, the definition of economics varies according to human perceptions and evolved periodically to include in it human activity and welfare. Alfred Marshal (1890) , for instance, says that economics "is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of Life; it examines that part of the individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of material requisites of well-being." Thereafter, as another example, we have a famous definition written by Lionel Robbins in his 1932 essay saying that "economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."
The introduction of human activity and furthermore, the introduction of human behavior in various aspects of the world economy, explicitly economics, brought several concerns not only to the definition of economics, but also to the outcomes of economics. Even though economics produces theories based on the correlation of empirical data with the observation of the society's behavior, its theories' outputs do not yield universal constants or follow natural laws. However and despite the countless cases of economic analysis where results are conclusive, the discomfort is basically due to the reliance on unrealistic or unobservable 'assumptions' due to the complexity of the human behavior and the world where we live.
Here perhaps is when economics and the use of math came together into debate. However, we cannot separate math from economic analysis, but certainly we should not forget that it is an instrument to understand, to some extent, the complex reality of our world and society and not by any means the ultimate conclusion or truth. And what students (any students or students of development/economics) should know is that "to be good at what they went there for—which is to improve the lives of the poor" they need to take into consideration that math in economics is a powerful tool, but when they create a model or an equation to explain human behavior in the economy, there are rules that might not apply even though it seems like they do. In addition, the one who pays the bill of any erroneous development prescription either produced by a mathed up economist or the rest of us development folks, at the end, are the poor that they are trying to help.


This goes back to one of the issues addressed in an earlier post about what is appropriate to teach the students in Dani's program. If they spent two to three weeks studying how to separate hyperplanes or set theory in order to get through a grad level micro text, It is not obvious to me that this is an appropriate use of the limited time those students will be there. It seems to me a more appropriate approach would be to be more "practical" or "applied" approach to microeconomics. For example, if you are going to be involved in micro-credit programs, it is not obvious to me that one should be well versed in the models of Townsend vs the old Ohio State school of rural credit. A ph.d. student yes but maybe not a student who may be running a micro-lending organization. Well, that is my humble opinion.


What about the vast majority of people out there--the ones who are not smart enough to grasp the math? I guess they will never understand development. Every individual that hasn't had advanced level training in math should be automatically disqualified from having a strong opinion on poverty and underdevelopment. Well, that's just about most of the world, including nearly all political leaders in the developing world. Let's leave the strong opinions to the humble economists, the ones who realize that they're not smart enough.

C. Ryan

In defense of Peter's argument, an old friend from economic literature:



The maths - and the economic arguments - are all very well. But somewhere along the line,the man on the Clapham Omnibus needs to understand it - and that can ONLY be in a very short sentence of short words.The greatest writers hone their sentences by shortening them, giving the words more punch, and making the meaning crystal clear. Would that Economists did the same! ( and no made up words)

Per Kurowski

Re: "The moral of the story is that if you are smart enough to be a Nobel-prize winning economist maybe you can do without the math"

Yes but also remember that life is a balancing act as so many highly sophisticated mathematical models are reminding so many sophisticated mathematical financial portfolio modeling engineers these days and who by the way included a couple of years ago a Nobel-prize winner that from what I have been told overdid it on math.
Even I who am not that great at math readily admit that math is great. But never forget that it is only an instrument to be used and not an instrument to obey blindly or worse, hide behind.

Actually at this moment particular moment, after having read some really senseless research papers that hide their mumbo jumbo behind equations I am not really sure what is more important promoting the undoubted usefulness of math or warning for the dangers of being overtaken by it. Nonetheless I respect and understand Dani Rodrik’s undivided call for math, after all it is the first days of the semester or term, and there will always be time for the nuances later.

By the way… Have yourselves all a very fun and productive semester or term.


Is it fair to mention that among those who do understand the math, it makes one heck of an efficient way to communicate? (and sometimes, gasp, its not important for *everyone* to understand what you mean while you are working out an argument). For all their complexity, equations also nicely set aside cultural connotations that wreak havoc on other forms of communication. X=5 means the same thing no matter what part of the world you are from.

Matt Nolan

I completely agree with what you have said here.

Even if maths is a more efficient way of understanding a set of economic concepts, being able to sensibly translate them into subjective, value laden words is a talent.

If we are not careful as economists, maths can become a set of smoke and shadows that we use to hide behind when we don't understand why something is happening. If you can describe your model without maths, then you truly understand it.

However, I struggle with the maths and the words, so I'm not sure I'm able to comment :)


"but they omit things like error bars"


Peter Boettke


Two points. First, Alfred Marshall had a wonderful saying for economists and it was "burn the mathematics." His basic idea was that mathematics is a very useful servant, but a horrible master. He did not argue that we shouldn't use mathematics to check our logic. Instead, he argued for the use of mathematics along the same lines you lay out. But then he turns around and says once you are tested your argument against mathematics you should "burn the mathematics" and commnicate the argument in the clearest use of language possible.

Second, there are some instances where the important questions defy mathematical rendering. Here I recommend Kenneth Boulding's 1947 review in the JPE of Samuelson's Foundations where he argues that the flawless precision of mathematical economics may prove impotent in addressing the complexity of the social world --- a world that was better analyzed with the literary vaguness of economic sociology.

Again, mathematics can be a good servant to thought, but not a very good master in the realm of economic discourse. Think of all the issues that were raised by non-mathematical scholars over the years that have proven essential to understanding development and social order: institutions (North), alternative legal systems in a positive transaction cost world (Coase), constitutional retraints on predation (Bucuahan), enterpreneurial activity (Schumpeter, Kirzner and Baumol), power and collective action (Olson), cooperation and coordination (Schelling), and spontaneous order (Hayek).

Especially in the field of development economics scholars such as Hirschmann and Streeten said a lot of valuable things without the use of mathematics.

So again I think it is a matter of having some perspective on the issue of mathematics. Is it a good signal of intelligence? It certainly can be. Does it guarantee good economics? Certainly not, we can prove much economic nonsense using higher mathematics. Being a good economist is about a lot of things, mathematical acuity may be on the list, but certainly doesn't exhaust it. History, philosophy, political theory, languages, demography, technology, etc. would be on my list of the skill set that usually is found in good economists.

Eric H

I agree with the conclusion of this post. However, that doesn't excuse overdoing it. This is a recurring theme in Econ Journal Watch. Examples:

Where would Adam Smith publish today?

The Mathematical Romance: An Engineer's View of Mathematical Economics

pat toche

I agree completely with Dani's conclusion. Yes, mathematics helps you to be smarter. So many times I have come up with ideas that seemed intuitively correct and brilliant, but once put in mathematical form turned out to be false leads.

I would add a cautionary note.

Some of the smartest ideas in economics can be expressed clearly with some mathematics. For instance, the matrices that summarize Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage is an (admittedly elementary) piece of mathematics. Smart ideas such as the market for lemmons or the theory of optimum taxation can be expressed clearly with mathematics.

In some cases, simple maths will do, in other cases the maths get more involved, and in a few cases the maths is really advanced.

The question that needs to be addressed is this: what is the optimal level of difficulty of the mathematics you should use to express an idea in economics? It must depend on your purpose. If your purpose is to illustrate or communicate an idea, you should try to use the simplest type of maths: take a hump-shaped function for your example. If your purpose is to run some simulations and attempt to replicate or estimate some dataset at some level of accuracy, then you may need a strictly concave function with a not-too-large number of parameters. But if your purpose is to show the generality of a certain property, then you may need to go for quasi-concavity, correspondences and other advanced stuff.

The problem I think, with the way things were taught when I was a student some 10 years ago or so, is that lecturers usually tried to prove the generality of certain theorems: they would immediately frame everything in terms of some little-known topology and try to prove that an equilibrium would exist even if the function was non-differentiable and had convex sections, as long as the convex sections were not-too convex according to some obtuse criterion.

And that's where it all goes very wrong, because the advanced mathematics should be used only for advanced research, best left to the McKenzies, Mas-Collell and Brocks of this world. The likes of Barro, Krugman or Mankiw, to name some famous mainstream economists, have never needed to venture into the world of Borel measures (or whatever), and have produced brilliant ideas.

So I'm afraid to say I do not approve of quasi-concavity being taught in most grad econ schools. I think strict-concavity should be more than enough.

P.S. As far as I know, Krugman and Mankiw have made mathematical mistakes in at least one of their published papers, the "History and Expectations" paper by Krugman, and the "Savers-Spenders" paper by Mankiw -- both papers are brilliant.

Greg Ransom

You need it to advance your careers and sustain your social status among your peers. That's the beginning and end of the story.

"The moral of the story is that if you are smart enough to be a Nobel-prize winning economist maybe you can do without the math, but the rest of us mere mortals cannot. We need the math to make sure that we think straight--to ensure that our conclusions follow from our premises and that we haven't left loose ends hanging in our argument."


Where are the banal inconsistencies of life to be found in a mathematical formula?


kinglear, are you proposalizing an endogeneous transitioning to an clarification proceduralization strategy initiative going forward?

Joe S.

It's way too late in the thread, but I'd like to add a comment anyway.

Anybody who has gone through the Feynman lectures has realized that physics is much harder to understand without the math. Is this really true for economics, or at least the parts of economics that are interesting and useful?

As far as I can see, math can be a useful test of an economic argument. If you can't translate it to math, and have the equations work, maybe you don't have the argument you thought you did.

But it is not like physics. You really don't (in my experience) need math to communicate substantial ideas in economics. Or if you do, it is hand-wavy math, like the idea of convexity.

Darren McHugh

My own feeling (I have a terminal MA from Queen's, one of the "best" econ schools in Canada) is that since economics deals with understanding quantitative phenomena of the economic world, tools of mathematical analysis (graphs, equations, etc) are certainly useful for building a framework in your mind with which to look at the world.

However, economics as taught at the graduate level combines an infantile infatuation with technical complexity with a criminal indifference to relevance and applicability. It is the worst form of boredom: both difficult AND pointless.

In my experience, algebra is essential in sound policy discussions but anything beyond that is overkill. Professional academics value the mathematical firepower the way an autistic savant would, but they are, unsurprisingly, universally oblivious to how irrelevant their work actually is.

Darren McHugh

Peter B: "Being a good economist is about a lot of things, mathematical acuity may be on the list, but certainly doesn't exhaust it. History, philosophy, political theory, languages, demography, technology, etc. would be on my list of the skill set that usually is found in good economists."

Absolutely. Sadly, graduate school in economics rewards ONLY mathematical acuity. In my experience, the students most favoured in my graduate program were the ones who were capable of quickly cranking out 40-page math-laden homework assignments, but knew nothing about anything and were capable of little more than cliched grunts when discussing any real-world policy question.

Dominic Meagher

I've only just turned my attention to this blog, so apologies for commenting so long after the post, but in response to Darren above:

I agree that courses award maths above almost any other skill in terms of the grade students receive. But when professors give recommendations, or select students they want to give the most personal attention to, maths is much lower on the list. Rather, a strong sense of the big picture issues, an ability to identify problem areas within that framework, and a writing style which is not only clear and effective, but also pleasurable to read all trump mathematical prowess. (These skills generally require a wide reading across all the social sciences).

Students who have excellent maths skills without the above, receive the best grades and are then waved good bye.


I think the posts in here miss an important point. Myself I did a very math-y masters degree at the LSE, and took a year of PhD courses at Penn.

I work as a professional economist, and many clients pay top $ for our advice and reports. In fact, many of them find that our work has an integrity that is lacking in other consultants' work. Where we sometimes run into problems is in "translation." Econometrics is seen as an especially valuable skill.

So while the more abstract bits of real analysis that I once knew-- the Weirstrass M-test and the Slater condition-- are forgotten and useless, I can't help but think that learning that stuff somehow really helped me think through problems, and put structure on them.

I see the same "value of math" in other parts of my firm. Among some of our partners who are chartered accountants, the best are those who studied a mathematical subject such as engineering or natural sciences at university.

And yes, I do see un-mathy folk fail to distinguish between say growth in income and levels of income, fail to sort out causality and correlation, etc. The maths is a way to make some of these basic analytical distinctions more enduring in one's mind.


You've inspired me. I almost gave up hope on Economics as a boring and useless major(because of all the math). I am more of a conceptual thinker and now I will focus more on concept than on math as I have been.


You've inspired me. I almost gave up hope on Economics as a boring and useless major(because of all the math). I am more of a conceptual thinker and now I will focus more on concept than on math as I have been.

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It would be interesting to do a similar graph of Japan vs. US average tariff rates from 1980 up to the present. Such a graph would show that the Japanese are no worse than we are when it comes to protectionism. Revisionism on this issue is badly needed.

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Great, Why we use math in economics. I once took the time to post a point-by-point refutation of one of his posts as a comment. He simply truncated it down to one or two sentences and tried to disprove them (not even correctly!). I was unable to comment on that post again.

Not being part of academia I don't expect equal treatment, but it was still pretty low of him.


« Abuse and Success | Main | Speed-Dating and Business Development »
Vinson & Elkins Hiring Partner Spills the Beans

Vivia Chen

June 3, 2010

Two weeks ago, we inaugurated our hiring partner Q&As with a chat with Jones Day's Gregory Shumaker in Washington, D.C. This week, we're talking big law in the big-D (that's D for Dallas) with Vinson & Elkins hiring partner Tom Leatherbury. Let's hear what he has to say about lassoing an offer from this old-line Texas firm.

Leatherbury_Tom How does this year's summer program compare with last year's?
We have 30 fewer students. This summer, there are 97 [participants] firmwide.

The firm extended offers to only 75 percent of last year's summer associates. That's a bit discouraging. Any chance that rate will improve this year?
Generally, our offer rate is north of 90 percent. We had a large program last summer and the economy was uncertain. Things are more stable now; we have room to make everyone an offer.

The breakdown last year was: a 100 percent offer rate in New York, 66 percent in Washington, D.C., 70 percent in Houston, and 80 percent in Dallas. Were the summer associates in New York that much sharper?
In New York, students tend to spend the whole summer with one firm; in some cities, they might split the summer. The offer rate tends to be higher in cities where people don't split the summer.

So it pays to stay put?
It helps if you can see more projects from a student. Also, if they have a misstep, they can correct it if they are there longer.

Let's talk about the fun part of your summer program. Any big, fabulous parties at some sprawling ranch coming up?
We used to fly all the summer associates to Austin or Houston for a weekend, with nice parties from Friday to Sunday. But last year, in keeping with the rough economic times our clients were having, we had to cut costs. There's no rush [now] to run the tab back up. We've eliminated the summer associate weekend; instead, we'll do presentations on topics like law firm economics at the offices.

Scintillating. Okay, back to more serious matters. What do you look for in candidates?
The folks who do best are self-starters, they tend to be a bit entrepreneurial.

How do you assess that quality in an interview?
You ask them questions that go beyond the resume--like how they handled a difficult client situation in a clinic.

V&E must look at the usual paper credentials--grades, journal work. Would you ever hire a student who did poorly in contracts or civil procedure?
There are no automatic exclusions. Our grade guidelines are guidelines. We look for trends, and some who took time off from school might not do so well in the first semester.

What impresses you in an interview?
Some of the most memorable interviews have been with people who've worked with the Peace Corps or Teach for America or went to graduate school. We've had great successes with people for whom law is a second career.

Any candidates that bombed?
Two years ago, we had lunch with an interviewee who insisted on ordering top-shelf liquor. It was bad judgment.

Have you ever made a hiring decision you later regretted?
You won't find a hiring partner who hasn't. Most mistakes come from being too lenient in evaluating work product. You rarely find someone who was only marginally successful as a summer associate who's also successful as an associate.

So work trumps personality?
It's a service business, and you have to hold your own.

One final question: V&E has 14 offices around the world, but Houston is still your biggest outpost. Would you say that Texas culture pervades the firm?
Only if you think that's a positive.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo, courtesy of Vinson & Elkins.

Posted by Vivia Chen at 01:31:28 PM in Advice
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Why we use math in economics.?? The good news is that God is faithful and gracious, despite our persistent efforts to push him away. I would say your anxiety is a good sign. Seek the Lord while he can be found, and trust in his goodness and mercy, not in your own righteousness.. Great


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there are some other explanations...
lets start with some from std econ theory, that people are rational actors who try to maximize their gains
since very few non economists understand anything but basic math, this insulates a profession with few insights from criticism
people with math get paid more
you don't have to go out and do grubby research, but just sit back in your office and write elegant equations

an alternative explanation is that economics has no real explanatory power, so it resorts to fancy math to disquise that fact. I read P Krugman's discussin the other day which started off, roughly, lets assume the economy has borrowers and lenders only...immediate transition to deep math..it seems like pathology: you create these simple models that can't possibly be realistic enough to be worthwhile, then populate them with fancy math.
I have a feeling taht one day, hopefully soon, someone like feynman is going to roast the whole profession.

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