Room for Creativity in Economics

By: Janet Rubin

For most of your economics career at Tufts, it may seem like you are learning to follow rules.  For example, in micro you’ll have to learn the functional forms of each type of indifference curve, then you’ll follow the same steps to find the point of tangency with the budget constraint and get the answer.  In macro, you’ll have to learn the differences between Keynes and the classicists and which equations match up to which theories, and so on…

Economics may seem different from the humanities and, indeed, social sciences in that there is little room for creativity.  But once I reached more advanced electives and started working on research projects with the Economics Department, I began to appreciate the immense amount of thought and creativity that is required to apply the principles that are the focus of foundation courses.  For instance, as I work on my thesis, I am trying to figure out worker choices about hours under varying circumstances.  Without the tools of economics, I wouldn’t know how to approach this problem.  But after micro, I know that I’ll want to set up a utility function and maximize it by taking the derivative and setting it equal to 0.  Beyond that, the number of choices I can make is immense (as evidenced by my pages and pages of algebra that eventually led to nowhere).  What variables are important?  What does the worker choose, and what is held constant (and are those determined by more complex interactions with other agents in the workplace?)  Even something that seems as dry as choosing a functional form needs to be related to a conceptual interpretation of the problem.  Should I set up inputs as substitutes?  Complements?  With an exponent to allow for increasing or diminishing effects?

While in foundation courses, these interpretations are abstract and taken for granted, in actual research (either your own or that you will encounter in advanced electives), the framework provided by these models will be applied to real situations and used to figure out something about the world.  The math and theory behind economics can seem rigid and dry at first.  But what I find most rewarding about economics is that being comfortable with these tools gives you a solid technical basis on which to build when you want to analyze situations you care about.

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