Wednesday, October 03, 2007

When do I get my card? 

Does it take a PhD to be called an economist?

To refer to oneself as a medical doctor or be a member of the American Medical Association there exists clear education requirements. This prevents people from taking medical advice from someone unqualified and inflicting harm upon them. No such conditions are required to be called an economist or join the American Economic Association. This results in people who enjoy thinking about the economy, but may lack even undergraduate understanding of the field, representing themselves as experts on issues pertaining to the labour market, trade, and development. Often you have to do some digging to find out they are actually ... sociologists.

The years of graduate-school seminars and rigorous mathematical training empowers PhD economists to converse with each other in a language all our own. This allows us to continue to believe that our years of education were worthwhile because we can recognize each other and sneer at the impostors. In the mean time, the rest of the world takes thoughtful advice and opinions from people who sometimes, while not having our illustrious pedigree, also have some very good ideas�and sometimes better ones.

In graduate school one day I was sitting in Craig Stubblebine's public finance course in which he asked a question. I started my answer with "As an economist, I would say..." Before I got any further he smiled and said "Who said you were an economist? When did you get your card?" Flustered, I retracted the first three words and proceeded to answer the question. I don't recall the question or my answer, or his response to it. Just that I was told I didn't necessarily get to call myself an economist just because I was a second-year grad student. Obviously that stuck, since it happened almost thirty years ago.

When I advise undergraduate students -- I do next to no advising of our masters students -- they ask what kinds of jobs they can get, and the first thing I tell them is that it's highly unlikely it will have the word 'economist' in the title. Instead, I tell them they are trained to analyze, so look for the word 'analyst' in the job title. That opens up many jobs; it won't be apparent they fit the job, but I tell them their more liberal artsy background (versus the student graduating from our business school) makes them more adaptable. They should have a story to tell of how this is so, I explain. They will be thinking like an economist, we hope, but not called such.

But I think, to expand on the linked post, that calling oneself an economist has to mean more than "studying the economy" or being "a labor expert." I think it means some commitment to understanding human action as rational (or, to use the title of Mises' book, Human Action is intentional or purposeful.) It understands incentives as powerful; it understands that all human actions have costs; it understands decision making as happening at the margin. To go back to the heterodox post earlier today, that understanding still allows a well-populated spectrum of beliefs on policy issues. One can certainly stand on the spectrum without that understanding and talk about trade or labor, and one can probably call that talk "economics", but should get your card as an economist? I wouldn't give it to you. We cannot call economics a discipline without some disciplinary standards.

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