Mon, 04 Aug 2003

What makes an economist?

What makes an economist? How can I say that I am an economist? I might have a certification mark that proudly proclaims me to be a certified economist. That's not likely to happen. Economist is too widely used to be a certification mark. You'd have to invent a new name, like Realtor, or Windows.

Nobody has an Economist™ certification mark right now, so just as anyone can call themselves a Christian, or a vegetarian, or a pacifist, or a mathematician, so may anyone call themselves an economist.

In some states, you can't call yourself an engineer unless you are a professional engineer. You can only become one if you pass the professional engineer exam. Once you have, and you are, you're qualified to put your name on various official documents, such as the plans for a bridge. This rather surprises people who have gotten a degree in software engineering from a three- or four-letter university. Without their PE, they can't call themselves engineers. Once they've gotten their PE, they can build bridges.

Many colleges hand out various degrees in economics. No doubt some of these degrees are actually worth something. The economics graduates of my acquaintance seem remarkably ignorant of economics, however. Maybe my sample size is too small? If not, I have to conclude that what economists do, and what colleges teach by way of economics are two completely different things.

Private certification marks, state certification and college degrees are all, so I claim, useless for determining the economist-ness of someone. How then, to decide, if someone is really "an economist" or not?

I rely on Henry Hazlitt's definition of economics taken from his book Economics in One Lesson:

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group, but for all groups. Once you understand and grasp this lesson in its fullness, you will never hear the news the same way again. So very often you hear people talk about economics in non-economist terms. That is to say, they ignore the shorter or longer term or ignore the effect on all groups.

More than anything else, economics is a way, a method, a path, or a system of thought. If you want to have the economics nature, you must train yourself to think like an economist. You can study economics, and learn how other people have thought of things. Until you learn to think those same types of thoughts, however, you cannot call yourself an economist. Without understanding, there is only parroting.

This entire blog is filled with examples of bad economics. Read on to see how bad economics hurts everyone.

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