Home > Uncategorized > To be a good economist one cannot only be an economist

To be a good economist one cannot only be an economist

from Lars Syll

The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts …. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.

John Maynard Keynes

Economics students today are complaining more and more about the way economics is taught. The lack of fundamantal diversity — not just path-dependent elaborations of the mainstream canon — and narrowing of the curriculum, dissatisfy econ students all over the world. The frustrating lack of real world relevance has led many of them to demand the discipline to start develop a more open and pluralistic theoretical and methodological attitude. 

There are many things about the way economics is taught today that worry yours truly. Today’s students are force-fed with mainstream neoclassical theories and models. That lack of pluralism is cause for serious concern.

However, I find the most salient deficiency in ‘modern’ economics education in the total absence of courses in the history of economic thought and economic methodology. That is deeply worrying since a science that doesn’t self-reflect and ask important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.

Methodology is about how we do economics, how we evaluate theories, models and arguments. To know and think about methodology is important for every economist. Without methodological awareness it’s really impossible to understand what you are doing and why you’re doing it. Dismissing methodology is dismissing a necessary and vital part of science.

For someone who has spent forty years in the economics academia, it’s hopeful to see all these young economics students that want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. Never give up. Never give in!

  1. March 21, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Isn’t some general awareness of important principles of natural science also a pre-condition for being a sensible economist ? Has anyone ever successfully refuted the proposition Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was so insistent upon, that the laws of thermodynamics are necessarily relevant to economics ?

    Not everyone who finishes high school, or even who goes on to do the necessary post-secondary mathematics to “earn” the right to play in the mainstream economics model-building sandbox, seems to remember the first and second laws of thermodynamics, yet they are among the most pervasively relevant and significant constraints on economic “production”. Giants in theoretical physics like Einstein, Eddington and Schrodinger expressed themselves quite clearly on this subject. As Eddington famously said of the second law (which is more frequently forgotten even than the first):

    “The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation. ”

    It seems to me that a great many “economists” have either never learned this, or have all-too conveniently forgotten it. And that fatal “forgetting”, seriously compromises the value of their theorizing, their empirical work and their policy prescriptions.

    Michael Barkusky
    Pacific Institute for Ecological Economics
    Vancouver BC

    • Craig
      March 21, 2017 at 10:28 pm

      Yes, the laws of thermo-dynamics is essential in understanding the deepest problem with modern economies…and a full understanding of a NATURAL concept of negative entropy is necessary in order to craft policies that resolve it.

  2. Risk Analyst
    March 21, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    First of all, the oppressive overlay of music in the movie and quick scene changes trying to generate an artificial sense of urgency is a bit much. It gave me a headache.

    Second, I have wondered about this ysi thing but it seems very mysterious and opaque. I defy anyone to find any actual information on what they are doing or creating or learning by going to the ineteconomics website. There are lots of teasers saying you need to join to learn more, but my age would disqualify me. The little movie here goes on about the amazing level of diversity and inclusion, but I find it to be the opposite.

  3. March 22, 2017 at 1:07 am

    Thank you, Lars Syll, “For someone who has spent forty years in the economics academia, it’s hopeful to see all these young economics students that want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. Never give up. Never give in!”
    Thank you, Michael Barkusky, “… fatal “forgetting”, seriously compromises the value of their theorizing, their empirical work and their policy prescriptions.”

    Why is it so difficult to find one book in the library….

    “There never was an idea stated
    that woke men out of their stupid indifference
    but its originator was spoken of as a crank.”
    — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
    (1809-1894) American Poet
    .*** BUT, why not one by a Noble Laureate for Physics ? ******Excerpt from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Soddy
    “In four books written from 1921 to 1934, Soddy carried on a “quixotic campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships”[this quote needs a citation], offering a perspective on economics rooted in physics—the laws of thermodynamics, in particular—and was “roundly dismissed as a crank”[this quote needs a citation]. While most of his proposals – “to abandon the gold standard, let international exchange rates float, use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools that could counter cyclical trends, and establish bureaus of economic statistics (including a consumer price index) in order to facilitate this effort” – are now conventional practice, his critique of fractional-reserve banking still “remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom”[this quote needs a citation]. Soddy wrote that financial debts grew exponentially at compound interest…”

    • March 23, 2017 at 1:23 am

      “Soddy wrote that financial debts grew exponentially at compound interest…”

      I kind of disagree with this perspective. Interest doesn’t compound to infinity. Instead interest rates asymptotically approach zero as we have seen in the US since 1980.

  4. March 22, 2017 at 10:02 am

    What a pity #JMK did not like statistics and computer science. That would have made an even better quote to define a master econometrician!

  5. C-R D
    March 22, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    A professional economist should know about thermodynamic entropy as a disorder of a system at the atomic and molecular levels. He or she would be a complete economist if she also knows about the meaning of Kolmogorov-Sinai entropy.

  6. March 23, 2017 at 1:27 am

    Entropy may be helpful, but chemistry is far more direct. Any chemical reaction is always gated by its rarest ingredient. So, when you flood your car engine the non-productive part (oxygen) becomes the productive part, and when an economy is founded on right-wing principles, the non-productive part (consumption) becomes the rate at which the productive process (production – duh!) can occur. Just learning that little tidbit from chemistry could make all the difference in the world.

  7. March 24, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Your analogy is extremely helpful, Jeff, but I’m not convinced entropy is.

    I’m just re-reading Wiener’s “Cybernetics”, a most interesting historical portrait of the background I have had to reinterpret for my own work, which in chapters 1-3 aligns itself with the mathematics used by economists that Mirowski worries about in “Machine Dreams”. In particular it treats entropy, probability, coordinates and information as things in themselves rather than measures, and in my own field missing the point of Shannon’s information theory completely. (That addresses information capacity, defines information as news and actually adds redundant information to permit detection of errors). Wiener fails to see that Gibbsian mechanics (adding by integration probabilities of different things, i.e.bits of energy travelling in different directions) proves little more than that a geometrical picture can (with sufficient coordinates as time markers) be communicated as a time series. In Shannon’s “Mathematical Theory of Communication”, entropy is a measure and a historically and philosophically interesting aside.

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