What Makes a Good Economist

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What Makes a Good Economist

By: Bob Higgs
Posted on February 06, 2015 FREE Insights Topics:

Comments by John Baden

Bob Higgs (http://www.independent.org/aboutus/person_detail.asp?id=489)is one of America's most respected and productive economic historians.  Decades ago I brought Bob to MSU to give a talk on the economics of sustainable salmon fishing and the causes of overfishing.  And no, the cause is not greed but rather poorly designed institutions and political influence. 

Greed is constantly present.  It needs culture and institutions to channel and constrain its mischief.  Bob used microeconomics, the study of making decisions about scarce resources, to explain salmon fishing.  Alas, Bob's talent is increasingly rare in economics.  It has migrated to other fields that use the micro model, policy analysis for example.

Bob recently wrote a note to Don Boudreaux lamenting the devolution of economics into recreational mathematics.  Don, also a nationally respected economist, posted his agreement on Cafe Hayek.  I believe their comments are worth sharing.

What Makes a Good Economist?

Bob Higgs to Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek

Don wrote: My dear and wise and incredibly learned friend Bob Higgs sent this e-mail to me.  I share it with Bob’s kind permission.

"I am thinking that you may well share my view, which I have held for a very long time, that the scarcest ability among economists (and others who purport to have expertise about economic matters) is good judgment. Many economists are obviously very smart, in the sense that they are good at math and can wheel and deal with pretty complex mathematical models and econometric exercises. But this sort of technical ability may — and sad to say, usually does — have little or nothing to do with actually understanding how the world works. What I call good judgment about economic reality seems to depend much more heavily on a combination of (1) mastery of basic applied price theory, the theory of how changes in incentives and relative costs affect actions taken at the margin(s); (2) substantial knowledge of economic history and the institutional context of economic actions; and (3) a level-headedness that keeps the economist from falling in love with what is merely possible (usually in a fairly other-worldly model) and losing sight of what is likely. In other words, most economists and other purported economic experts, notwithstanding their cleverness and mathematical prowess, have no “feel” for how the economy works at all. It’s as if they never see past the trees of technicalities and possibilities to the forest of real economic actions and interactions, not to mention having an appreciation of the relative magnitudes of various factors. This aspect of economics, as the great majority of economists practice the craft, has always put me off, ever since I was an undergraduate; and, if anything, it puts me off even more now, after I have spent half a century trying to do economics right."

I agree with every word, every sentiment, and every implication of the above.

The tradition of economic scholarship and teaching at George Mason University continues to stand quite uniquely and steadfastly against ‘scientism’ – including against the habit of mistaking proficiency in mathematics or in statistics for proficiency in the economic way of thinking.  

The economics profession is chock-full of high-IQ people who would be great engineers; the economics profession is sadly short on wise, insightful, and historically informed people who are good economists.

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