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Coming Out As Non-Quant

Paul Krugman, of Krugman's Economics for the AP® Course, was cupid. And falling for economics, it seemed, was destiny—the two of us meant for each other, and for nobody else, and forever. Production possibilities curve. Business cycle. Reserve requirement. In senior year, economics whispered sweet nothings into my ears, and something switched over inside. Here’s what followed: commitment to CMC, a post-arrival change of intended major to economics, a brief (and fearsome) toying with the data science sequence.

Banished was any thought of the humanities, the “soft” disciplines for the faint-of-heart. Our world, apparently, is divided into the quantitatively-minded, and all the rest—and it seemed, then, of radical importance to fall into the first category, rather than be swept up into the “underclass.” 

Gosh, it felt excellent to be “quant.” People take you seriously, when you tell them you’re an aspiring economics major. Numbers? “Don’t worry,” you’re able to say (suave, confident, dripping with nerdy appeal)—“Let me crunch ‘em.” At family dinners, there’d be predictable talk of the “political and economic state of the world” (to quote Jaden Smith). And naturally, people turned to me for answers. After all, nobody else was acquainted with the models we’d built in ECON101. No one else at the table regularly used calculus. And, as everyone knows, taking derivatives a few times each week elevates a person to demigod status. 

Most of the world is god-awful at math. And the population of our country is especially innumerate; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 13% of Americans score in the “proficient” range for numeracy, and 22% of adults fall into the “below basic” abilities category. Maybe that’s why the possession of “quantitative skills” means something—it sets you apart. A simple principle—scarcity—explains why the finance-bros get to sit at the table with the “alphas.” Plenty of students spend entire academic careers avoiding algebra; some, understandably, tap out at geometry. But, when you’re an economics major, you’re one of the few who’s elected to keep company with numbers for four whole years—sometimes, even, to add, subtract, multiply, and divide these numbers. And, because you’re engaged in higher level mathematics, there will be letters involved, too. But these aren’t the letters with which “the arts” amuse themselves—these are number-adjacent letters. 

Anyway, in the “respect for one’s intellectual ability” hierarchy, the economics majors are close to the top. Being there wasn’t a familiar feeling. Up until senior year—the year economics presented itself—it had always been the humanities, for me. Sure, math mattered—the California state curriculum wasn’t wrong in insisting we all “PEMDAS-ed” until the bell delivered us to lunch. And yet, there were other subjects—history, English, music, art—which woke me up, and interrupted the sleep-deprived stupor of those eight-hour days. 

Part of me hadn’t ever felt right admitting this, though. People don’t “ooh” and “ahh” when you tell them you’re in love with writing, or Peter Paul Rubens’ paintings, or the poetry of Donald Hall. Because, well, it’s unclear where the career prospects lie for a person whose passions are utterly un-monetizable. And, apparently, there’s nothing “to” these subjects. Where’s the struggle? Where’s the rigor? When you’re into quantitative subjects, you’re obviously brainy. When you’re into the Defenestration of Prague, you’re destined for malemployment. Not just anyone can “do” mathematics. Anyone can be “into” the Defenestration of Prague. Most people just possess the good sense not to be. 

So, something inside resisted. To be “non-quant,” it seemed, was to be only half of a person. Preferring the arts or humanities signals, to everyone else, your character flaws. To begin with, you’re probably “bad at math.” And, though most people are “bad” at math, it’s a cutting accusation. Even if you beat these allegations, it’s “naivete” you’re charged with; you’re presumed oblivious to your talents’ utter lack of utility. Or worse, you’re uncooperative—defiantly clinging to your societally un-sanctioned interests. 

Plenty of “non-quant” rule-followers find themselves leading double-lives, sitting in economics courses, wishing to be across campus, doing anything else. Eventually, though, some of them—some of us—pluck up the courage (or lose all patience), and admit: we’re going to major in philosophy. 

Of course, it takes admitting it to yourself, first—that you’d do alright as an economics major, and yet you’d regret it if you spent four years manipulating Excel spreadsheets, instead of unlocking the secrets of the universe. And then, you’ve got to admit it to everyone else—everyone you tried to fool. Breaking the news won’t always feel good. Sometimes, you’ll get this response: “Wow. Thoughts for the future?” and you’ll spiral a bit. (If everyone else is deeply concerned about you, should you be deeply concerned about you?) And yet, you’ve got to do what you like; it’s all you can do. 

Half of all marriages end in divorce. Mine, with economics, ended, too. Neither of us were to blame. Economics would’ve made another person (or even half of the college) very happy. Sometimes, though, you’re simply set free by your lover, given up. And when you’ve moved on, finally, and the heartache subsides, you realize what you should’ve known all along. 

See, there’s this economics concept: comparative advantage. And it explains why companies, countries, and individuals benefit from trade—one entity is just better at offering up a particular good or service. So, you find your niche, and you run with it. And everyone’s better off. Some people do the quantitative thing, and others do the non-quantitative thing, and then you get together and share. And well, if economics taught me anything, it was this: finding my comparative advantage meant looking elsewhere. 

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