How to make an economist

I’ve often asked myself, in self doubting moments and imposter-syndrome-rich night sweat events, what the difference is really between a person who says they are an economist and, well, just a person. Can I really lay any claim to be something other than the averagely well-informed news media-consuming citizen?

Certainly a lot of what I covered in my MSc was hard to learn but, in terms of sheer insight and understanding of how the world works, I usually think that you can explain all of economics to an attentive listener during one good session in the pub.

But if there is a difference between an economist and our hypothetical well-informed media consumer, it’s perhaps this: it’s an economist’s actual business to read massive, threatening-looking books about the economy. I won’t understand the content of such books differently (or, crucially, retain anything any better) than the average reader. It’s just that I’ll actually take the time to do the reading in the first place rather than tackling, say, an account of the British protectorates in the Middle East or a tome on Cubism. You’ve only got a certain number of reading hours in your life (particularly if you watch as much John Oliver on YouTube as I do) and what you choose to dedicate those hours to ends up shaping the adjectives you feel comfortable using to describe your actual self: I am an economist.

It is in this spirit that I begin what looks like your archetype of the no-fucking-around serious and weighty tome on economics currently threatening to destabilise the centre of gravity of my pretty low-slung coffee table:

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Holy shit it’s big. And it’s serious looking. The unbelievably old-fashioned twisted flax motifs bracketing the title are the sleeve-designer’s equivalent of a bow tie on a 35-year-old debate show host: they’re designed to fill you with awe at the seriousness of what’s being presented.

But so far, and it’s very VERY early days by the way, I’m impressed and excited by the tone that’s been set and the direction it seems to be heading. What I hadn’t realised is that the whole thing’s a summary of a load of work Picketty and assorted colleagues did to gather as much historical data as they possibly could about wealth and income (which not the same thing) in as many countries as they could, going back as far in history as they could. The introduction gives some details about the monster database they’ve built, and then the rest of the book is going to be all about the things they’ve actually managed to find out, by looking at this data and asking questions of it.

This is exactly what my whole philosophy of data-driven economics was aiming to be about, although I never actually managed to articulate it in any coherent way. But it’s basically about trying to think of economics as the social science it is, wanting to imitate anthropology or political science, instead of physics as the discipline’s been doing for 120 years. And that involves careful observation of the thing in question, in our case the economy, and conclusions drawn on the basis of those observations.

It also has given me a big grin in the form a wicked (in both senses) quote which sums up perfectly exactly how I feel about the economics establishment I’ve recently become a card-carrying part of:

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves.

Boom! It’s reading statements like this that not only make me feel more justified in calling myself an economist, but that actually make me proud to assign myself the title.

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