Contradicting Economics, with Economics

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 1:44pm

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Design by Kate Glad

When I first started applying to colleges, I was often amazed by the number of choices available at every school. There were so many majors, so many classes, so many student organizations — the world seemed to be my oyster. The University of Michigan seemed to dominate in this realm, and I came to school here for this very reason. However, it wasn’t just the sheer size of their programs; it was the fact that U-M was nationally ranked in seemingly every single one of them. They also had schools dedicated to special topics, such as the School of Information, whose classes usually would be tucked into a computer science major at another school.

Though I knew I wanted a good combination of quantitative and qualitative elements — some math and some writing — I hadn’t settled on an exact field of study. I was a young student in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, and I was comforted by its offering of 85 majors and more than 100 minors. There were also 14 other schools within the University that I could apply to, and with Michigan having strengths in both the sciences and humanities, there didn’t seem to be a bad option.

However, this freedom of choice was just an illusion once put to the test. I soon realized that taking one class meant I couldn’t take another, and that going down one major path meant I blocked off a different route. Each of those 14 schools had prerequisite classes I had to take before I could apply. Even though I would’ve only applied to maybe three of them, that still meant at least three prerequisite classes for each school. There was no way I could fit those in my schedule, while also fulfilling distribution requirements, and still be on track to graduate on time. 

Given I was constrained with a “budget” of only 18 credits (about four or five classes) a semester, I had to figure out which classes within those 18 credits offered me the best balance of enjoyment, workload and need. I soon had to learn which classes I could afford to give up in order to take another, more interesting class. I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too; I had to make trade-offs between choices, and hopefully make the choice that gave me the greatest benefit.

For example, math eventually became a situation where the skills I gained paled in comparison to the suffering it caused. I didn’t really have an interest in taking math beyond upper-level calculus. When I first started, math offered me enough benefit (I could then major in Economics or other majors with math as a prerequisite) that it was worth the present sacrifice. However, at a certain point, the pain from taking math classes vastly outweighed the potential benefit that the cost outweighed the gain — the equivalent of negative marginal utility in economics. Thus, I closed myself off to any potential math majors, as well as statistics. 

I also learned that I had no desire to write papers all day, as I had originally thought when writing my college applications. I wanted to be a historian or a diplomat when I was in high school, but after recognizing I would never learn another language — I had taken 14 years of Spanish classes without achieving fluency — I closed these paths off as well. My original wealth of options was getting smaller and smaller by the day, and the joy I felt in having so many choices turned to anxiety.

All this time, my intended major was staring me straight in the face, but I refused to recognize it. The mental calculations I kept making, the realizations I had, all pointed straight down the path of economics. I was already thinking like an economist with the daily internal machinations I conducted, and it was only a natural step to devote most of my coursework to it. 

I could also say it was destiny; my mother and sister were both economics majors (the latter at Michigan), and I grew up being quite familiar with terms like marginal cost, utility and scarcity. But, in economics parlance, the choice to follow my mother and sister’s footsteps also maximized the utility I received from picking a major. 

There would be a substantial math component, but also a chance to do plenty of writing, building both my analysis and data handling skills. While I wouldn’t learn another language, I would get to see how different countries interact in the international economy, and how their cultures affect their relationship with the rest of the world. I would get to learn plenty of history, but also mix it with a lot of data. In short, I would get the real-world application with the knowledge of theory I craved. 

Majoring in an LSA department also gave me the chance to have that full liberal arts experience I desired when I was in high school. I’ve had the chance to analyze paintings in my French art history class, read articles about what it means to be an empire, take (another) semester of Spanish, and experience my first real coding class. Because the Economics major requires fewer credits than many of the other majors I considered, I also have the chance to enhance my degree with a minor. In the course of fulfilling distributions, I might also get the chance to study abroad, and therefore travel outside North America for the first time. 

In a field of study defined by making tough decisions between two options, majoring in Economics at the expense of something else ironically didn’t create a trade-off for me. I could — despite the strict bounds of rational choice  — have all the things I wanted in my college experience, and even get to explore all those choices which initially bedeviled me.