Home > Uncategorized > What it takes​ to become a great economist

What it takes​ to become a great 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 fundamental 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 developing 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 asks 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 whyyou’re doing it. Dismissing methodology is dismissing a necessary and vital part of science.

For someone who has spent forty years in 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. February 21, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    I agree about the need for economic history to be brought back but have a feeling that the methodology that is needed should be much wider than economic…Indeed why not dust down the good old Scottish tradition of Political Economy – as practiced by people such as Mark Blyth, Wolfgang Streeck and Yanis Varoufakis?
    Given that a tiny proportion of economics graduates actually find specialist jobs in government, commerce or academia, I would suggest that more ethics, logic, psychology and communications should figure in the junior years.

    I have just discovered Yanis Varoufakis’ Foundation of Economics – a beginner’s companion (1997) https://economiafi.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/yanis-varoufakis-foundations-of-economics_-a-beginner_s-companion-taylor-and-francis-2002.pdf on the net – as well as Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules – the rights and wrongs of the dismal science (2016) https://www.economicas.uba.ar/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Economics-Rules-Dani-Rodrik.pdf. Both books should act as inspiration to jaded lecturers….

    • February 21, 2019 at 7:57 pm

      If you think Rodrik is the way forward, maybe you should think twice …
      “When the model becomes the message – a critique of Rodrik”

      Click to access Syll274.pdf

      • February 22, 2019 at 6:46 am

        I was not suggesting that Rodrik was “the way forward” – rather that the style of writing (and thinking) which graces his book and Varoufakis’ much older “Foundations” is one which could usefully be practiced by more economists…I tried in my post https://nomadron.blogspot.com/2019/02/a-better-economics.html to pinpoint the latter’s appeal –“the sheer originality of the prose –showing a mind at work which is constantly active…….rejecting dead phrases, clichés and jargon… using narrative and stories to carry us along….. looking for new perspectives ….thinking constantly about how to keep the readers’ interest alive…..his annotated further reading list actually makes you want to read further”

        Since the days of JK Galbraith, academic economists have scorned colleagues who write for the general public – and the reputation of the subject has suffered as a result. The recent book “The Econocracy – the perils of leaving economics to the experts” is a nice example of the sort of book the public is crying out for…I know you’ve written “more than ten books” on the history and methodology of economics and this is perhaps why I found your 17-page rebuttal of Rodrik a bit ….well…..dense……

        Recently, and somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggested we needed to ration the number of non-fiction books on the market.. https://nomadron.blogspot.com/2018/11/why-we-need-to-ration-non-fiction-books.html – or at least subject authors and publishers to some tests to minimise the scale of what they inflict on us…..I develop that theme in a little E-book which I developed simply because I found so few writers about the global economic crisis seemed able or interested in offering us, for example, a typology which might help us “situate” their book in the deluge of writing – https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/e475c8_886177034d70465a925c34ffe1fa887b.pdf

  2. February 21, 2019 at 3:57 pm

    I should have linked to this morning’s post https://nomadron.blogspot.com/2019/02/a-better-economics.html – which gives a lot of hyperlinks to relevant material and poses the question of how a Greek can put us all to shame with such clear and original prose

  3. Helen Sakho
    February 22, 2019 at 3:30 am

    An earlier comment (below) intended as a response here was lost somehow . A similar account might appear on Maria’s post today… Apologies for any repetition. I hope it is of some relevance to both anyway.

    These are all excellent points. The best methodology to teach is the one grounded in the sociology of the dying. I believe I have referred potential readers to various references on this.
    We did not learn from history, nor from the dead. Will we ever learn from the dying now?
    Arms deals to the tune of some 120 billion US dollars have just been signed in the name of “brotherhood and real friendship”. This alone would have been sufficient to eradicate abject poverty globally. The key issues thus remain: War and conflict by proxy in the face of falsehood and lack of belief in basic human rights. The right to live in peace and harmony without having to resort to killing people, the planet and what it contains for personal greed, fame, or super-survival. Even the days of Social Darwinism (a concept I used in teaching globalisation and the dichotomies of international migration a long time ago) are over. I think we should start teaching Psychopathic Narcistic Paradigms. Sorry to sound rather “Trumpish”. I have great affinity towards enlightened Americans.

  4. Craig
    February 22, 2019 at 7:39 am

    What a wonderfully correct quote of Keynes. It is correct in every word and is demonstrative of the nature of wisdom as in the integration of the truths in opposites. Of course when you’re one of the originators of a new discipline like macro-economics you inherit a lot of cultural bias and the blinding effects of the current long term paradigm as well. Keynes work was the monetarily indirect fall back position of finance which after the great depression and C. H. Douglas’ Social Credit which with its universal dividend and compensated retail discount was indeed monetarily direct and so a threat to their paradigm of Debt Only. It was also way ahead of its time as heterodox economists have come back to it with QE for the people, UBI and debt jubilees.

    Your observation that economists don’t have a good sense of history is also accurate. Several years ago when I mentioned to Steve Keen that Douglas was the first disequilibrium theory he appeared to have no idea who Douglas was despite it being a world wide movement between the world wars, Douglas being a citizen of the British empire and Australia being a part of same and a place where Social Credit took root, albeit a rather religio-fied version of it.

    Unfortunately Douglas had a little too much of the tory in him and never really looked at private finance with a totally objective eye, but who else even now has the guts and paradigm perception to call private finance not an actually legitimate economic/productive business model….and not for the reasons it’s normally criticized for? That plus Douglas and his followers since never really recognized the paradigm changing potential of their policies. Well, Kuhn had not written his seminal book yet, so like with so many other things it’s an awareness problem that prevents full vision.

  5. MichaelLucasMonterey
    February 24, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    Dear Lars, friends & allies: Wow!
    Thanks again Lars. Nice to find you participating. I agree with you about the necessity of teaching the history of “economics”–the whole of its history–if economics is to be a viably effective field of science. However, that would include truly adequate study of all Smith’s work, Simmel’s seminal Theory of Money, Schumacher et al, also the history of money, credit, banking and the systematic subversion & perversion of them. Stephen Zarlenga’s historic survey would be a useful text for that curriculum.

    A second major in history or anthropology or psychology, plus multiple minors in the other humanities would be useful preludes to an appropriate double Master program, leading to a doctoral program in ethical holonomics or holontology or cultural meta-economics. That might prepare one for a pre-licensing internship & residency process similar to the post-doctoral work required for medical practice.

    However, given the Hellbent commercial momentum & vast majority rule of the global plutonomics arena, it seems far too late for any contenders to win The Day. Sadly, I think the history of the post-autistic economics movement and the RWER blogsite prove my point. Yet, all is not necessarily lost. Bucky Fuller and Kohr were right. Instead of trying to improve a defective system–or fighting it–we can make it obsolete, by replacing “economics” with cultural holonomics & ethical ecometrics.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record stuck on an immensely inconvenient truth, the Dark Night phase of Kleptocracy’s end game makes heterodoxy & pluralist factions worse than exercizes in futility. Can you honestly imagine an outcome worth sustaining if fundmentalist creationism and physics were simply contending flavors of heterodox pluralistic scientism? Then again, if a single, unitive, consistently logical foundation of valid metatheory is unnecessary, why not support a pluralist heterodoxy integrating religion and maths, or political science and theater arts?

    Oh, sorry, that last dichotomy is a well-developed reality. Let’s call a spade a spade, what Keynes realized was that economics could only be a valid science if it enabled a broad-spectrum, interdisciplinary, holotrophic approach to the subject of study: us and our cultural activities.

    Lars, your RWER posts have ignited some of the most important comments & dialogs I have seen, since 2008. I still wonder though (despite Craig’s contributions), am I just howling at the moon here, or is a viable foundation of valid metatheory something worth discussing and developing?

    If not, then (no matter how many flavors exist now) why should any of us waste precious time on the fundamentally defective system of an inherently schizoid pseudo-science?

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    March 10, 2019 at 11:59 pm

    Just a few comments. First, has any economist ever measured up to Keynes requirements? I think not. Most have never even attempted it. Second, before we go off writing the history of economics and teaching its proper methodology, in my view we need to define economics. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen definitions on this blog alone. And there are at least another half dozen floating around in dictionaries, textbooks, etc. So, before you describe its history and methods, reach a consensus on definition. Third, I’ve never heard from an economist a valid reason to spend time and effort studying economics, or what value, if any it has in an ordinary person’s life. Joan Robinson said study economics so you can defend yourself from economists. That seems to imply that economics is a threat and not a benefit to most people. Sort of like in my cousin’s neighborhood in Brooklyn. Most of the boys growing up there in the 1950s learned to box. Not because they loved or admired boxing but as a practical necessity to deal with the local street gangs. And, unlike boxing, which has actual benefits beyond defending one’s person, studying economics to defend yourself from economists seems to have no other benefits whatsoever.

    • Craig
      March 11, 2019 at 4:13 am

      De-bunking economics is what is necessary and has been going on for the last 10 years since the GFC. Steve Keen even made it the title of his first book after the GFC. The problem is iconoclasm only takes you so far. What you need is the guts and awareness to momentarily utilize illogic as a strategic way of exiting the hypnotic unconsciousness of the current paradigm as it (the willingness to consider illogic) is a signature of new paradigms. Combine that with another of the signatures of new paradigms, conceptual opposition to the current one and you’re more than half way there. It takes guts and insight to advocate a new paradigm, and too often too much knowledge is actually an impediment to seeing it.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        March 11, 2019 at 6:56 am

        Craig, I want more than de-bunking for economics. I want someone, somewhere to demonstrate to me and all the ordinary citizens that economics has value for the ordinary person and is not a threat to these ordinary people. Also, if there is going to be a social science of economics, can someone, anyone provide a consensus definition of that science and how it works? Unpretentious, direct answers is what I’m looking for. Most of the non-economists we interview assess economists as shills for rich people and big business, even many of the CEOs we interview.

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