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Columbia Spectator Staff

One day last week, I was poised to purchase a Japanese tea from one of the International Affairs Building's exotic vending machines when I was overwhelmed by a stampede, whose human constituents pelted out of their lecture on macroeconomics. I felt like someone trampled at a rock concert, only I had missed the main performance. How, I asked myself, can the economics major be this popular? In theory, I had been aware of the phenomenon—asked to define "political science" by an Aristotle-toting CC professor, a student in my class whispered, "The thing tacked on to an econ major."

Columbia has responded to this surge of interest and created a special concentration in business management and a specific major in financial economics, the subject of Derek Turner's recent column. Columbia, by popular demand, has moved to sate the econ-crazed masses.

And it isn't alone. Many top colleges and universities have felt the strain of the increased demand for economics. David Colander, chair of the economics department at Middlebury College, wrote in "The Chronicle of Higher Education," "If the college actually provided enough professors to meet the demand for economics courses, it would have to change its name to the Middlebury School of Economics."

In the Chronicle article, called "Economics Is the ‘Just Right' Liberal-Arts Major," Colander searches for an explanation for the increase in economics' popularity. He decides that, hedged between the rigors of hard sciences and comparatively "easy" social sciences, the major will not "hurt [students'] chances of being hired." In other words, kids these days are playing it safe.

It has not always been this way. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, undergraduate degrees in business and economics account for almost a quarter of those conferred in 2004, nearly double the percentage in 1971. Meanwhile history majors are down from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent, English majors from 7.6 percent to 3.9 percent, and foreign languages from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent.

I think many economics majors, asked to justify their decisions, would explain that there are few well-paying jobs to be found in the current economic climate. Overwhelmingly, they might say, the lucrative jobs are to be found in the financial sector. (Perhaps ignoring Adam Smith's quotation: "To admire the rich and despise the poor is the most universal cause of corruption.") They might agree with Colander that there is no harm in playing it safe. However, disregarding the moral ambiguities of a career in finance, that over a quarter of college graduates major in economics is a problem with serious consequences: personal, academic, and political.

The modern image of the Wall Street banker emerged in the era of the robber barons. It was not always around. Nor will this path continue to guarantee financial success— especially if everyone tries to do the same thing.

In his book, "Ill Fares the Land," historian Tony Judt writes, "In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well." And, these boys grew up in the Great Depression.

Judt attributes to our generation an unprecedented "failure of imagination." If young people, fearful, choose to follow rather than create, the real "opportunity cost" will be a lack of new ideas and ventures.

Judt, who taught history for many years at NYU, believed that academia itself suffers when we "restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss," flattening layers of complexity. For example, a friend and I read Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," which traces America's concept of success back to religious pathology. Then, her economics class flattened Weber's work into an argument for developing nations to adopt Protestantism over Catholicism.

On a larger scale, the surge of interest in finance puts America at risk. Goldman Sachs and others profited in the wake of the financial collapse, in particular, from betting against the American economy. Though not all economics majors choose this path, some future bankers are betting too: they cast their lot with the financial services industry, against the American economy.

The Center for Career Education's 2009 survey found that financial services attracted more graduates than any other industry. As the ranks of the parasites swell, they leave the animal from which they feed to starve. With resources siphoned away, who will be left to build?

Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English. The Far Side of the Familiar runs alternate Wednesdays.

Majors major declaration Economics
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