Who Is an Economist?, By ‘Tope Fasua
I always say that economists can be extremely dangerous people because they have been seen to bring ideas that will hold generations down. But they should ordinarily be the most valiant warriors for their societies, because they should be the first line of defence in warding off fraudulent ideas.
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 describing 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 a person with a Masters Degree and that his or her 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, on pages 321-322, Keynes wrote the obituary of his tutor-mentor, Alfred Marshall who died that year. There he contemplated the definition of who, really, an economist is. This is what he wrote:
“The study of economics does not seem to require any specialised 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 a 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 things. Our models and formulas, all of our econometrics, speak to that fact. A pure scientist would prove her equations matter-of-factly and add QED (quod erat demostratum – or ‘thus it has been demostrated’) at the end of her 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 a 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.
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.
So, as much as I love the definition of who an economist is by Maynard Keynes above, and bask in the realisation that I’m on the right track, I have since come to that realisation that, “An economist is someone who never stops asking questions”. Any economist who repeats dogma, who mouths other people’s ideas, 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 overemphasised. 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 tea-leaves, and reading them wrongly, especially in our economics. We are taking the wrong medicine – a medicine prescribed for other ailments – and hoping to get 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 Behavioural 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! Behavioural 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 Behavioural Economics is a direct challenge to Adam Smith’s classical thesis.
I have written before to amplify those who have criticised even the basis of Adam Smith’s teaching of economics. Katrine Marçal is another one of them. 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 maximise 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 (ouch!), 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.
Anyone who understands the responsibilities that Keynes heaped on economists with his above definition will understand that our job never ends. Any such person will know better than to conclude on anything too soon. There is however a brand of African economists who violently resist new thought, who parade themselves as defenders of textbook ideas which were written without the African context in mind. When people challenge what they have been taught – especially at Masters and PhD levels – they laugh, scoff, snigger or even insult. They are the brand that has sold Africa down the river into perpetual economic slavery. When I say African context, I don’t mean that we should formulate theories that keep Africa in the dark, but such that recognise our peculiar advantages but remind us that we have not yet arrived. When we gather at our seminars and symposia at expensive hotels around the country, we often invite foreigners and forget that the policies we discussed are meant for people who eke out a sorry existence and live in despicable conditions. We cannot expect them to react to policies the same way as people from developed nations, so many economic theories we bandy around are contextually flawed.
…here in Nigeria especially, our government consults people with outdated ideas, who only push Nigeria into more debt, call for foreign intervention, pass off unworkable economic theories, and are pimps for crass pecuniary ideas, such as the setting up of AMCON 2, so that banks will create more bad loans to be underwritten and absorbed by poor taxpayers. Are those ones economists?
An economist must never forget that he is not only a mathematician or statistician, but that he must consider the history of his context. Is that not the basis of autocorrelation and autoregression, of lag effects and lag variables? Then how can a historian forget that he is also a philosopher, that he should study the logicality of situations, and not be afraid to posit theories that don’t even exist but which have truth in them? Why do some economists only focus on figures, but lack the words that are more relevant to the affairs of human beings? We are not machines, or are we? And finally how did we ever forget to be ‘as incorruptible and as pure as an artist’? How have we allowed ourselves to be influenced by the forces of money, and ideology, and allegiances? And how did those who sit in their ivory towers forget that economics is about the people; and that they must develop the deft skills of a politician, to look into the eyes of the people and ask the relevant questions, not to throw theories arrogantly from the top – stories which never work?
Luckily even in developed countries, economics is changing. We can see that the old Chicagoans are silent. Thaler is even in University of Chicago now, talking Behavioral Economics. One of the most famous economists today is Stephen Dubner. He is also in Chicago pushing Freakonomics – a brand of economics which forces us to look through the minds of people. Eugene Fama is still there though, arrogantly holding on to his Efficient Market Hypothesis, even though the work of George Akerlof and Robert Shiller (Animal Spirits), disproved any efficiency in any market, and Shiller got a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on market boom and busts in 2013; Akerlof having obtained his own in 2001 alongside Stiglitz for their work which proved that market information is never perfect but assymetric. Akerlof is presently married to Janet Yellen, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank by the way. So, we can hardly say we don’t have enough models among the world’s most-hardwoking economists and those thinking differently for their countries. But here in Nigeria especially, our government consults people with outdated ideas, who only push Nigeria into more debt, call for foreign intervention, pass off unworkable economic theories, and are pimps for crass pecuniary ideas, such as the setting up of AMCON 2, so that banks will create more bad loans to be underwritten and absorbed by poor taxpayers. Are those ones economists?
I always say that economists can be extremely dangerous people because they have been seen to bring ideas that will hold generations down. But they should ordinarily be the most valiant warriors for their societies, because they should be the first line of defence in warding off fraudulent ideas. As a matter of fact, you don’t need a degree to show you are an economist. It will show itself in the way you think, and act. People like Richard Posner (Chicago Law School), and our own Kingsley Moghalu (Tufts) are lawyers who have taken keen interest in economics, and have excelled perhaps because they took that logicality of their legal mind into the economic sphere and refused to buy the dogma. Today they make a lot more sense than those who try to sell us snake oil ideologies which never work. The dogmatic economists are those who have chosen to be fooled by randomness, because they got things right a couple of times and believe human beings are totally predictable, markets are perfect, and all information available can be accessed by everyone. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in a society such as ours.
Thank you Keynes. You are the only one I know for now, who has defined who an economist is. Maybe other people should try and define who their own economist is. For me, an economist is a person who never stops asking questions, prying for the truth, and standing up for what truly works.