An economist is born or made?

CG MachicadoEconomists play an important role in the implementation of economic policies and thus in the construction of societies. So, it is logical to think that a good design and implementation of economic policies require good economists. These economists should be solidly formed not only in the handling of analytical tools but also in the understanding of the economic, social and institutional realities of their countries. The formation of this analytical, observant and practical economist does not finish in the university, but usually it begins there.

Together with two co-authors, I have just finished a paper on economics training in Bolivia and Chile (1). A better understanding of how new economists are formed in these countries would help to understand how economic analysis and political decisions are made in these countries.

The study was sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank and analyses similarities and differences between public and private universities within each of the two countries and also between countries. Among other issues, in particular, it analyses the evolution of the curricula, the bibliography used in the different courses, the teaching methods, student’s opinions related to different topics, and incentives that universities give.

The study concentrates mainly on the undergraduate level and it has been implemented through surveys administered to economics students in the last years of the career, to graduate students, and to professors. The statistical methodology used is similar to the one implemented to analyze the same topic in the US by Colander and Klamer (1987)(2) and Colander (2005)(3).

Appealing results have been found in the study. In Bolivia there is a larger proportion of women that study economics (around 40%) while in Chile women represent only 31%. In Bolivia 94% of the students finance their studies with own or family resources, while in Chile this proportion is only 47%. This result makes us wonder which type of public education financing policy is better: The “free” public Bolivian system, or the Chilean system of credit?

We asked students about what they most like or dislike of their universities. In both countries, students from private universities mainly like the labor projections they offer. In particular being an economist with a degree from a Catholic University is perceived as status. In both countries students dislike the teaching methods, they feel that there is a lack of discussions in class related to what is happening actually in the economy.

Students of both countries also coincide in that a successful economist is one that specializes in one field and devotes all his/her work and effort in research, implementation and developing ideas related to that field. This happens in Chile but not in Bolivia, where economists do everything. This could be a problem of the labor market, but it is also a problem of the universities that do not give any incentives to do research and do not hire full-time professors that could develop lines of research in the universities.

Economists are well viewed in Chile in comparison to Latin American economists: 28% of students consider that there are differences among Chilean economists and Latin American economists. In Bolivia 50% of students consider that there are remarkable differences among Bolivian and Latin American economists. They think that the main difference is the lack of research that makes Bolivian economists make decisions based on common sense and not scientific and deep analysis of reality.

Among the labor conditions that economists have in each country, it is noteworthy that 50% of economists that hold a master’s degree in Bolivia earn a monthly average income between US$ 500 and US$ 1000. Apparently in Chile, having a postgraduate degree helps to increase the individual income, while in Bolivia it is only viewed as a requirement to apply for a labor position.

Many other interesting results such as the economists people admire, what perspectives for the future students have, which role economists play in the economy, are there any incentives for research, how important are mathematics and other issues can be found in the paper (1). In general, important improvements are needed in the way economics is being taught in Bolivia. In particular, universities, both private and public, should invest more resources in the development of lines of research and full time professors. Universities in Chile have had and have important contributions to the economic policy debate. In Bolivia the contribution is scarce and this reflects in the lack of economic ideas to solve the main economic and social problems.

Do you know an innovative way to approach economics? Leave a reply below.

(*) Researcher at the Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail: .

(1) Espinoza, L., C. G. Machicado & K. Makhlouf (2007) “La Enseñanza de Economía en Bolivia y Chile” Development Research Working Paper No. 10/2007. Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia, November.
(2) Colander, D. y A. Klamer (1987). “The Making of an Economist”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 1 (2), pp. 95-111.
(3) Colander, D. (2005a) “The Making of an Economist Redux”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19 (1), pp. 175–198.


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