“Economist”

Published today at The Upshot: What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists? by Wren McDonald. I want to pick up on a couple of points raised since they really get at things I’ve written and obsessed about a lot over the years.

I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s premise that sociology—in particular ethnography—and other academic disciplines can bring just as much or more relevant knowledge and expertise to public policy debates as economics can. I’m going to get a bit depressing in a minute here so I don’t mean this to come across as a backhanded compliment or something. I do mean it seriously. My criticisms here are directed at very small words in the article that aren’t really about the article at all, but about us, economists, and our relationship to various publics, our professional PR, our toxic guild label. On the actual content of the article, the premise, the spirit, the recommendations I am quite on board.

Alright, let’s do this.

In justifying the claim that economists have a lot of influence:

Turn on cable news, and the guests who opine on the weighty public policy questions of the day quite often have some title like “chief economist” underneath their name. And there are economists sprinkled throughout the government — there is an entire council of them advising the president in most administrations, if not yet in this one.

The central problem here, the central problem of my whole professional psyche, is that these two types of economist are nothing alike. The label “economist” is stuck on both. Turn on cable news (note: please do not actually turn on cable news) and if you get an “economist”, they are talking about the financial market. Nine times out of ten they work for a private sector business. Their job, their constituency, their political preferences, are worlds away from mine. They’re aliens to me.

Until my fingers grind down to bloody stumps and my voice goes hoarse for the last time all I can do is continue to type and shout that economics is not money, economics is not finance, economics is not business, economics is not commerce.

Here is an article from a 2016 issue of the Economist with the subheading “profits are too high”. If you’re thinking that that seems like a weird thing for an economist to say then it’s possible you have been watching too much cable news.

This is not semantics and it’s not splitting hairs. Our job, my job, is not to make people richer, whatever that means, it’s not to get businesses to make more money, and it’s sure as all hell not to teach people how to make money on the hecking stock market.

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Hey look, an economist!

As an aside, I personally think that political strategists (sensibly) have never and will never allow academic economists to rise to the kind of level of influence that is commonly ascribed to them in the “anti-economics” genre. It would be political suicide!

They say when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And the risk is that when every policy adviser is an economist, every problem looks like inadequate per-capita gross domestic product.

Look, I don’t know. Am I the crazy one? I realize that my field of study plays a part here, but I have never, ever, ever even once in my career written a paper, read a paper, had a professional conversation, about gross domestic product. Now, I have taken and taught classes where we looked (with caveats) at GDP as a metric in the historical long view. Is that enough? Is that enough to hang this whole charge on?

Is it, like, implicitly there all the time and I’m just too dense to grasp that?

I’m trying very hard not to give up on this. I cannot possibly agree that all economists think about how “the markets” are doing or what’s going on with GDP. Many probably have a passing or personal interest in what the Dow is doing, but this is not what their research or policy advocacy is about. At all.

But I also cannot possibly turn to the dark side and embrace the monomaniacal arrogance that I feel constantly is projected onto economics—fairly projected, given what “economist” means in the general lexicon. I can’t raise that middle finger and say yeah, so what? Let’s all get rich, suckers.

Here I am again, split in half by a desire to defend economics on one side and embrace it on the other, and this is the mother of all false dichotomies because neither goddamn one of them is anything to do with what economics actually is to me, to my colleagues, to my students.

I have to accept that the layperson’s definition of economics and economists is never, ever going to be the same as mine. I can’t accept that. It drives me crazy. Here I am on a perfectly good Friday morning having another professional existential crisis and typing some stream-of-consciousness mess into a text box because I read an article that I agree with. I mean.

The guild label “economist” is far too broad. Does any other academic discipline suffer as badly from this problem as us? It’s too late. No-one is getting kicked out of this tent in the near future. I am not what you think I am.

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