Sunder Ramaswamy
On the cusp of art and science
Spatika Narayanan JUNE 18, 2017 17:00 IST
UPDATED: JUNE 17, 2017 14:35 IST
Looking for a discipline that offers a balance between marketable skills and in-depth knowledge? Economics could be your calling.

LinkedIn used its data to produce a list of the top skills of 2016 — those that will get you hired in 2017. The ranking is based on recruiter and employer activity over the past year. Number 9 on the list is ‘Economics’, nine ranks higher than its placement last year. We spoke to officiating director and visiting professor Sunder Ramaswamy, Madras School of Economics, to give us some insights into the field, picking up the skill, and career outlook. He is also a distinguished professor of international economics at Middlebury College, Vermont, U.S. Excerpts from an interview.

How do you define economics as a skill?

The simplest definition for economics is that it is the science of scarcity. We have so many resources — land, labour, capital, human ingenuity, time, money — all of which are limited. But our wants and needs are infinite. So, how do you make the decisions of what goods and services to produce, how to produce them, at what prices, and where to produce them? These are the sort of fundamental questions that the study of economics tries to handle. A quick glance at a newspaper or TV headlines shows that we are increasingly confronted with major issues — how to grow an economy, tackle inflation, eliminate budget deficits, alleviate poverty, reduce income inequality, remove environmental pollution, address globalisation, increase competitiveness of firms — the list goes on; and every one of these enormously critical issues has an ‘economics’ perspective on how to go about finding the best/optimal solution. People go about their daily lives without having any formal idea of economics. But they act in an economic way without realising it. So, the study of economics then becomes like “putting on glasses” when you have a vision problem — everything becomes clear. It allows you to examine more clearly the world around you, understand why certain things happen the way they do, and what consequences come about because of a particular action. You begin to understand how economic agents (consumers, producers, governments) take decisions and make choices — from the mundane, to the more significant ones.

The way economics is taught in many advanced countries and universities abroad, is that it’s very quantitative and analytical. The skills one should acquire are analytics, data mining, pattern recognition and modelling. But because ultimately the ‘actor’ in any economic system is a person, understanding human motivations and actions is also important. So, economics is truly on the cusp of being an art and a science. A good economist should know how to model, how to look at data, how to draw patterns from data, to not confuse correlation and causation, to look for unintended consequences; –these are abstract skills which good economists learn. But because economics is ultimately about people, while these analytical skills are necessary for a good economist, they are not sufficient. What makes you complete as an economist is not losing sight of the fact that it is about improving the quality of life of the people. Good understanding of the political, social, cultural norms and motivations is also important.

What are some programmes/pathways for job-seekers or students to achieve this skill?

There are lots of institutions that will take students even if they have not done their undergraduate studies in economics. Students can join postgraduate courses, whether it’s the Madras School of Economics in Chennai, Delhi School of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai, to name a few.

But, it is important that the student has a quantitative and analytical bent of mind — isn’t scared of math, for example.

Economics is also very readable; for example, Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics, became popular and really motivates the reader to look for ‘economics in everyday life’. Paul Krugman who writes for the New York Times, has written books that most people can comprehend. You can also sign up for the odd course online as well, through MOOCs. I think there is always going to be demand for MOOCs, but economics is a discipline that requires some guidance, just as many other disciplines do. So, I have always been partial to what I call hybrid learning — where you can do lots of the learning online, but you also have someone like a teacher or mentor who can guide you to answer questions and discuss nuances of economics theorising and policy making.

Career outlook and possible career pathways

Economics has an enormous set of marketable skills that are transferable to a wide range of occupations. It is not that if you study economics, you must go into teaching or government service. You could go into the private sector, join think tanks, NGOs, or undertake policy analysis. Specifically, you could work for a bank or financial institutions, companies that need analytics, data management and logistics; companies that need someone who understands market structures, competition, and cost structures of their products.

Your thoughts on why ‘Economics’ is in the top 10 skills?

People here are recognising that it’s a very solid discipline that is analytically rigorous, has a rich intellectual tradition, is philosophically sound, and yet marketable. You could study a challenging discipline such as philosophy, or Sanskrit, but it may not be as marketable these days. Or you could study a purely marketable discipline, but it may not have the intellectual depth you’re looking for. Economics, if taught right, provides this interesting balance between studying ideas in depth, and coming up with solutions to challenging global problems.

It is unfortunate that economics hasn’t become even more popular here in India. In the U.S., it’s been one of the top undergraduate majors for decades.Value and education


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