Development that Works: 8 qualities of good economists

Originally posted at Development that Works

Alfred Marshal regarded himself as “a wanderer in the land of dry facts; looking forward to a speedy return to the luxuriance of pure thought.” Keynes, in his 1924 Economic Journal  obituary,  (ungated here) thought that Marshall combined “the most essential and fundamental of the economist’s necessary gifts-he was conspicuously historian and mathematician, a dealer in the particular and the general, the temporal and the eternal, at the same time”. For Keynes, a good economist like Marshall should be “as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.” So the key to being a good economist is to combine and blend, to synthesize.  So it’s the blending of the skills that matter most. Look at history and be rigorous.  Be pure but be ready to transact.

But you also need skills.  A good graduate program should provide you that.  A wider vision of the world that accrues over time should help you in the blending.  A good economist might come out of that “au point”. Or raw. After all, Ferrán Adriá has shown with his cooking experiments that cooking is not luck.

Paul Krugman, a good example of a good economist and whose defunct economist is Keynes, thinks that a good economist should read the papers and listen, as he explains in this interview (in Spanish) with Xavier Sala i Marti. [Clarification: “good” is an adjective in the previous sentence, not a noun, as it normally is in economics].

Krugman expands when he explains his four rules for research:

  1. Listen to the Gentiles because an economist might get the metaphor wrong, but someone from a different discipline/perspective might have gotten it right;
  2. Question the question, or ask not what your model can do for you, but what you can answer with your questions;
  3. Dare to be silly and embrace different assumptions and like Dr. Livingston be thankful that you are there to welcome them; and
  4. Simplify, simplify and be a minimalist

To all this Krugman adds the need to engage in policy relevant work because “some of my favorite papers have grown out of this policy-oriented work”.  In other words, be relevant and be engaged. But Krugman would not want to go too far this route as “pretty soon you’ll probably start using “impact” as a verb.” Nowadays, and to paraphrase Marshall he seems to be in deep territory in the land of dry facts.

So we have a pretty good list: synthesize, develop your skills and use them, listen, question, be flexible, simplify, be relevant and engaged.

Let me add 8 more:

  1. Curiosity to challenge your models and if new data comes in, change them.  And this relates to number 2.
  2. Honesty and personal ethics are paramount. Even nations can fail when honesty is unconstitutional.
  3. Humility. After the worse crisis since the great depression, very few economists own up to the fact that even fewer predicted it and some even say that the failure to predict the crisis is because economic theory says they are unpredictable under the “efficient market hypothesis”.  At the risk of sounding wooly, the capacity to understand failure and adapt seems more important than ever.
  4. More than a big push, in the last decade economics got a nudge and is moving from ideology economics to economics based on facts. Let the data do the talking, and debunk established truths in topics that range from the war on drugs to political correctness.
  5. Humor is always good, particularly if you use it to not make a point.
  6. So in that vein, it’s good to have a smart partner. Nowadays most papers are written by more than 2 authors, so it probably helps if one of those authors is your partner who understands the difference between input and output when changing diapers.
  7. Although there is no such thing as a free lunch, a delicate palate is a good thing when an economist goes to lunch.
  8. And if the economist works and lives in Colombia, remember that you need a license to operate that has to be certified by the Foreign Relations Ministry and the Education Ministry.  Not kidding. Although nobody I know has one.

And finally, if none of those qualities apply to you, it’s always good to know that “economists have a mystique among social scientists because they know mathematics”.

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