What economists study: A guide for the curious

Christopher Snyder of Dartmouth College provides a guide:

When you meet someone at a cocktail party who learns you are an economist, the inevitable question follows, “What’s the stock market going to do?” That’s an excellent question. If, on the day I was born, my parents had invested $100 for me in Altria, the top-performing stock since then, I would be a millionaire.

Of course, most of us economists do not spend our time thinking about the stock market.

The press has its own view of what we do, not always positive, whether criticizing our inability to predict the future (Harford 2014), our lack of engagement with the real world (The Guardian 2017), or our preference for mathematics over people (Smith 2015). How do we, as economists, combat these negative stereotypes? Perhaps by explaining better the broader set of issues economists think about and how we think about them. I recently attempted this in a chapter (Snyder 2017) published in What Are the Arts and Sciences? A Guide for the Curious.

One short answer is that economics is the social science focusing on people’s material well-being, the ‘business side’ of life. How do people earn a living? What do they buy with the money they earn? What spurs the overall economy to grow?

While a starting point, the domain of economics has continued to expand, blurring any distinctions between it and other social sciences. For example, crime was once exclusively a matter for sociologists and corruption for political scientists. But economists realised that these social problems might respond to economic incentives, and left untreated could destroy a productive economy. In this way, the issues have become part of mainstream economics.

Nice bit..

Though he does answer the stock market question at the end:

Having patiently listened to your description of what you do, your audience may still expect an answer to the million-dollar question, “What’s the stock market going to do?” Recall the stock that could have made me a millionaire by now, Altria, the top-performer over the last several decades according to Siegel (2005). Are you curious what Altria makes? A good guess might be something high-tech, perhaps computers or pharmaceuticals.

Altria makes cigarettes. Until a recent spinoff, Altria was the parent company of Phillip Morris, manufacturer of Marlboro and other cigarette brands. With smoking on the decline in rich countries due to high taxes and restrictions, it is hard to believe cigarette manufacturing would be a good investment.

The surprising performance of cigarettes provides a useful economic insight into stock prices. It is tempting for average investors to think they can beat the market, but study after study shows this is generally not true. They are better off diversifying across many stocks and holding these stocks over the long term.

🙂

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