What is Real (Analysis) is Real (Analysis) in its Consequences

It has been seven months since my last post, and much has changed but I will only update readers on these matters in the context of this blog’s stated purpose.  Some details are in the recently updated biographical post on the right hand side of this page.

As of last night, I have completed my first graduate level course in any topic.  On the advice of many an economics PhD or PhD candidate, both at my job and on the various and sundry related internet forums, I enrolled in a course in real analysis at American University.  For those who don’t know, real analysis is essentially one long, rigorous proof of everything you ever learned in Calculus I and II. 

It was also, by far, the most humbling academic experience I’ve ever had.  Ultimately, my grade will be more or less acceptable (I’m expecting a B+ or better), but this was only after putting in an unbelievable amount of hard work and long study sessions.  I can not describe to the uninitiated what a real analysis course is like, but I would like to point out three things I’ve learned as byproduct of this experience.

1) Working full time and going to school is exceptionally difficult.  This is all the more true when the class is graduate level, but I have a new and more visceral respect for adults who pursue degrees in any field while working to support themselves and their family.

2) I’m not as smart as I thought, but I can still hold my own.  I’ve done proofs before in other upper level math courses at Mary Washington, and these I could usually complete in a sitting.  Not so in real analysis.  After working two hours on a single problem, I would often have to go for long walks and wait for inspiration to come to me.  Nonetheless, the answer did eventually come, and consequently I often did very well on homework assignments and take home tests.  However, I did very poorly on timed assignments such as exams.  Lesson:  I can figure just about anything out if given the time to do so.  This is a personal trait ripe for a careful optimization analysis at a later time.

3) Economics is “real.” There was a bright if awkward senior in my class who often opined that “economics isn’t real”.  I found this to be a frustrating and pseudo-intellectual comment, but I also found it difficult to immediately respond when he said it.  Eventually, I settled upon a good retort that I planned to unleash the next time it came up:  “Economics purports to be the study of human choice under the conditions of scarcity and uncertainty.  By all accounts, it succeeds in being  just that, regardless of whether one agrees with its methods or conclusions.” 

I never actually had the chance to say this, but last night after I finished my final exam, I was walking to my car when a different thought occurred to me: 

Economics is real, because it is real in its consequences.  (A slightly modified take on the Thomas Theorem).   Economics may or may not make undue assumptions about humanity; its conclusions may or may not be patently, objectively false.  Nonetheless, those conclusions inform policy that has real effects on the quality of life for billions of people.  The point is not to preach some particular and unchanging view of the human condition, but to constantly tweak and present new and innovative means to understand and, yes, manipulate that condition.  Even if it isn’t objectively ‘real,’ it tells a very compelling story, of which I would like to be a co-author.

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