Picture this: you attend the university with the country’s top business school and you have friends who are “proud they’ve never taken an economics class” and can’t explain marginal utility to you. Chances are it didn’t take much to imagine; if you’ve spent any time at Penn you’ve probably encountered the antipathy in some of the student body towards economics. In many ways, I can’t blame them. I once held the belief that studying economics was a pipeline to Wall Street, a high-brow discipline to describe the way money is made and moved. As someone who now majors in glorified game theory, I have come to understand it’s so much more than that.
For fear of sounding like an introductory economics professor on the first day of class, economics is in fact the study of decision making, or what drives people to make the choices that they do. For most economists, money is a means to end rather than the root of what motivates their studies. The principles taught in these courses are widely applicable to virtually every decision in every discipline that we encounter on a daily basis. No matter your career, understanding the opportunity costs of choices and the incentive structures which motivate people are vital to your success.
This reality does not even account for the necessity of fiscal and financial literacy for productive civic engagement. With every ballot cast, we help to decide the economic policy of the country and, in turn, as an economic superpower, the world. Our limited exposure to fiscal concepts allows politicians (most of whom lack that economic understanding themselves — see their surprise at the implications of their “response” to current supply chain failures) to make arbitrary proposals and win votes on arguably irrational or unsound proposals.
Proposals like the Transportation Climate Initiative offered in Connecticut and Massachusetts, make this clear. While advocating politicians claim the restrictions put on oil companies won’t be reflected in household budgets, a very basic command of economics highlights the reality that firms almost always pass these costs along to consumers. This cost is effectively a regressive tax, making up a larger portion of poorer households’ income. The same can be seen with rising prices for gas nationally. Whether or not voters approve of these policy proposals, it is vital that they are equipped with the ability to comprehend what the effects of them will be. Willful ignorance about the way markets work by choosing not to take an economics class at a school like Penn is akin to allowing politicians to take advantage of you as a voter.
If fiscal literacy is so necessary for prosperity as a citizen, then why do so many people scoff at taking an economics course?
This resistance to economics as a discipline and failure to see it as a necessary stepping stone in civic life is in a large part a reflection of our educational culture both on campus and throughout the country. While our educational institutions value “liberal arts” (note the College's Arts & Letters sector requirement at Penn and the four years of English required in my public high school) they often fail to prioritize practical knowledge. Just 25 states require their students to complete an economics class prior to graduation. Even more shocking, only 40% of college students will encounter economics in their undergraduate courses. The reality is our compulsory education is failing to prepare students for economic participation, and our universities aren’t making up for it.
Ben Franklin understood this importance in founding Penn. Our “pre-professional” culture is not one of coincidence, but one of design. Franklin advocated for a practical, business-minded, and well-rounded education. In “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania,” he wrote, “It is therefore propos’d that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental.” No course simultaneously offers the opportunity for application, creativity, and perspective evaluation more than economics.
In high school I volunteered as a “Junior Achievement” teacher at my local elementary school. The program, which seeks to bring financial literacy to students across the country, offered innovative techniques for how to explain complicated issues like global trade relations to fourth graders. I would regularly be shocked at the fascination of the kids I taught when they inquired about things like intellectual property, which should be far beyond their realm of understanding.
This is to say that if a nine year old can comprehend macroeconomics, there is no excuse why students at the foremost business preparatory university in the country can’t. Rather than stand on your soapbox of avoiding the “Penn to consulting pipeline” by refusing to take an economics class, I encourage you to reach beyond your preconceived notions and find your child-like curiosity. A failure to do so is a detriment to not only yourself, but your ability for civic participation as well. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to call it your patriotic duty as an educated member of our representative democracy.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.