Who is an Economist? (1)
Who is an economist? It is embarrassing that there is really no definition of who an Economist is or what he/she does. Yet many people go around calling themselves by that profession. I went online, to the biggest library in the world - the internet - to find an answer. There was none. What I found instead were job adverts for ‘Economists’ who wanted to join the rat race. They told me an Economist is someone with a Master’s Degree and his salary averaged blah blah every year. The few who attempted defining who an economist is, still used the word Economics in the definition. Of what use is “an Economist is someone who studied Economics”?!
But luckily I got something from arguably the best economist who ever lived; John Maynard Keynes. In the Economic Journal 34 of 1924, pages 321-322, Keynes wrote an obituary for his tutormentor, Alfred Marshall who died that year. In the obituary, Keynes contemplated the definition of who, really, is an economist. This is what he said:
“The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? An easy subject at which few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that 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 lie 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.”
Coming across this definition greatly gladdened my heart. I know that economics is regarded as some generic pseudo-science; a dismal science it is called. But here was a man who understood what it was all about helping me put my first degree course of study and pride into perspective. I have met many phonies in my time who call themselves Economists but are one-track minded. An Economist, a real one, can never think in black and white but in the 50 shades of grey in between. We are trained to have open minds, to always question. Our models and formulas, all of our Econometrics, speak to that fact. A pure scientist would prove their equations matter-of-factly and add QED (quod erat demostratum - or ‘thus it has been demonstrated’) at the end of his equation, but an economist always leaves room for doubt, with his ‘error term’. No matter your economic formula or model, a provision must be made for the ‘error factor’, represented by small e or m. Why? Because in the matter of estimating economic phenomena which involves human beings, we know, and MUST acknowledge, that human behaviour could never be accurately predicted without any degree of deviation the next moment.
So as much as I love the definition of who is an economist by Maynard Keynes above, and bask in the realization that I’m on the right track, I have since come to that realization that “An Economist is someone who never stops asking questions”. Any economist who repeats dogma, who mouths other people’s ideas, I have met many phonies in my time who call themselves Economists but are one-track minded. An Economist, a real one, can never think in black and white but in the 50 shades of grey in between. We are trained to have open minds, to always question. Our models and formulas, all of our Econometrics, speak to that fact. A pure scientist would prove their equations matter-of-factly and add QED (quod erat demostratum - or ‘thus it has been demonstrated’) at the end of his equation, but an economist always leaves room for doubt, with his ‘error term’. is a fraud. An economist can never be dogmatic, hence many of us find it hard to be very religious. He maintains an open mind. As it is, too many ‘pretend economists’ have been running the Nigerian economy. Their claim to fame is perhaps that they worked for some multinational donor agencies where they got into after getting the right degrees and often by writing thesis that fit the agenda to run the world in a certain way (dogma again). And we have been teaching our university students the wrong stuff. By now, Africans needed to have started thinking for themselves. We ought to have started critiquing everything we were taught decades ago. The evidence is on ground that those theories never worked. A lot of the theories we pass on to upcoming students were either fundamentally or contextually flawed, but especially contextually. Somebody should lead the change for their review from our peculiar contexts.
The centrality of this matter cannot be overemphasized. Perhaps the reason why Africa is unable to rise is this intellectual capture. It is subtle, but effective. We are failing to launch because we are reading the wrong tealeaves, and reading them wrongly, especially in our economics. We are taking the wrong medicine a medicine prescribed for other ailments - and hope to be cured. Already, some of the fundamental theories that we grew up with, have been discredited. I recently read a long article by Professor Paul Krugman where he alluded to Behavioral Economics and threw his weight behind those who now know that the idea of a ‘rational’ human being; the Homo Economicus, is all but nonsense. Yet, our economic decision-makers really believe in the rational man who can always be motivated with money! Pathetic! Behavioral Economics is one new strand of economics, and many quote the work of Richard Thaler, ‘Nudge’ where he explored the fusion of psychology and economics. A department was created by David Cameron in his Cabinet Office which was called ‘The Nudge Unit’. The idea is that you MUST understand the psychology of your people before enacting economic policies, and you can do things to ‘nudge’ them in a desired direction. The UK did the right thing. Here, we still repeat dogma. Of course Behavioral Economics is a direct challenge to Adam Smith’s classical thesis.
I have written before to amplify those who have criticized even the basis of Adam Smith’s teaching of economics. Katrin Marcal is another. She wrote a book titled ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’, positing strongly that Mrs Smith - Adam’s mum - did not cook dinner for her son because she hoped to maximize some utility, neither did she wait to take every variable into consideration before acting out of her love for her son. Marcal - a feminist - went ahead to say Adam Smith wrote as a man would (oops), but perhaps more importantly, that Adam was never married. If he married and had children, he may have formulated economics differently, with a lot more nuance. His Homo Economicus is a pitiable, lonely and unfriendly character, always plotting for monetary advantage. Most humans are not like that.