Saturday, September 26, 2009

A (Bright) Students' Choice

Nick Kraft quotes in his article “Misleading Indicators” from David Colander’s book, The Making of an Economist, Redux and asks:

“How do people become economists?” (HERE)

Were an undergraduate student to ask an economist how to become an economist, he would tell her to go to graduate school. She might demur, asking, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to go to Wall Street and learn how markets work?” Getting firsthand experience may sound like a good idea to her, but most economists would briskly dismiss the suggestion. “Well, maybe I should get a job in a real business—say, turning out automobiles.” The answer will be “no” again: “That’s not how you learn economics.” She might try one more time. “Well, how about if I read all the top economists of the past—John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Adam Smith?” Most economists would say, “It wouldn’t hurt, but it probably won’t help.” Instead, he would most likely tell her, “To become an economist who is considered an economist by other economists, you have to go to graduate school in economics.”

So the reality is that, to economists, an economist is someone who has a graduate degree (doctorates strongly preferred) in economics. This means that what defines an economist is what he or she learns in graduate school.

Over the past 30 years or so the graduate economics curriculum has become more and more like a program in applied mathematics with a corresponding de-emphasis of economic history, history of economic thought, industry studies and industrial relations. This narrowing of focus gets reinforced as the student finishes the Ph.D. and gets a job in the academy. The greatest rewards go to those who make advances in theory and publish in the half dozen top academic journals. Few articles will be accepted by these journals that do not start with the standard abstract model and then derive some new “interesting” result. Publishing in public policy journals, by contrast, is considered much less prestigious and can even count against an aspiring academic by showing that one is not a serious economist. And of course, after receiving tenure this is what one knows how to do

A fair enough generalisation (and not too much hyperbole) about the state of modern economics – without even going into the pernicious job-protection scam (not extended to staff) of “tenure”, as exercised by the existing professorial priesthood to control the supply of teachers who conform to their orthodoxy.

However, we live in the real world and must work within the system. So the young economist who asked the question should respond carefully in her choice of career preparation.

We can illustrate the choice, and the consequences, by reference to the choices chosen by Adam Smith and David Hume in 18th-century Scottish Universities. You find their experiences, remarkably, were not that much different to those that post-graduate-minded students might face today.

David Hume chose to buck the system and not conform, and though apparently willing to sign the Calvinist Confession of Faith to be appointed professor in Scottish universities, because that was a prime condition of such appointments in both Scotland’s four universities and England’s two universities well into the early 19th century, he was still refused positions at both Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, in both cases by the direct intervention of Presbyterian church ministers who vetoed his appointment (in Edinburgh the vote was 12 to 3; in Glasgow in was unanimous).

Adam Smith, incidentally an accomplished mathetmatician, chose a different route (in deference to his mother’s religious devotion); he signed the Calninist Confession of Faith, took the oath of Fidelity, and kept quiet about his (lack of?) religious belief. He took his place among the professors and managed over a life time to disguise his scepticism (the flimsy cover for atheism) in what appeared on the surface to be his Deism.

Hume published his Treatise, his Inquiry, his essays and his histories of human nature, and much else, and left his legacy, that endures, as one of Europe’s greatest moral philosophers and pioneering political economist.

Smith published Moral Sentiments, a masterwork of moral philosophy, as well as a masterly theological obfuscation, which still today misleads most who read (and study) it into believing that he was, variously, a Christian (Calvinist), a Theist, a Deist, a Stoic, or a devotee of Natural Religion.

However, when Moral Sentiments is ‘parsed’ * carefully, and Smith’s biographical details are considered, a different picture emerges, and Smith religiosity is highly doubtful.

My recent paper, “The Hidden Adam Smith in His Alleged Theology”, which was presented at the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the Study of the History of Economics, University of Richmond, Virginia, June, 2009, discusses the evidence for this assertion and is available by request from Lost Legacy (address on the top of the Home page).

Now, of course, in Adam Smith’s case he had to pass a religious test first, and an academic test later, and budding economists today do not face religious tests, though it wasn’t so long ago, in my lifetime, during the early years of the Cold War that US academics had to ‘pass’ a political test of not being, and/or not associating, with known communists.

The choice, therefore, is to avoid continuing to contend for academic posts in economics (per David Hume) or to study to meet the gateway criteria laid down currently by the self-appointed Manderins of the their version of the necessay agenda of our discipline.

If the student is self-confident in her brightness and natural talent, she could follow Hume’s or Smith’s road; if she is strong in mathematics she could apply for posts in maths departments or direct into economics’ departments (which in due course will become sub-sets with applied maths departments anyway), and then, once in, she could take her economics research wherever she fancies (Op eds, popular and topical blockbuster books, media interviewers, high-level advice on the recent failings of modern economics, and such like).

Whatever she does, I hope her reading includes some history of economic thought to get some perspective of what the discipline has lost as the price of achieving high-competence in imaginary worlds without real human beings.

* When I did English literature at school, the intransitive verb, ‘parsed’, was about grammatical analysis - subject, object, verbs, adverbs, nouns and nouns-in-apposition, and etc., - and not about supposed authorial meanings.


Blogger Curt said...


First, has anyone tried to write a contemporary or updated chapter by chapter summary of TOMS that makes the effort of the work a little easier to 'parse' given that it is, unfortunately, filled with apologies to the then-establishment?

2:37 pm  
Blogger Curt said...


While I really don't like comment moderation unless it's done hourly, I understand that it's important to preserve the Brand of the web site.

I think that ridiculous posts and their refutation by other posters, tends to educate people who are at the same level of "ridiculousness", and that's not a bad thing.

Some fairly popular blogs (Economists View) attract the same polemical malcontents, and effectively kill off rational debate. Some get no traffic at all.

I'm a fan of ASLL. Defend you now and then on other blogs. Thanks for your hard work.

2:41 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks for your views.

On TMS there are several 'companions' to TMS out now.

I have written on his gneral theme in my Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy' (Palgrave macmillan 2008

In my current work on TMS (The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology') I explain why it appears to support the establishment. I ame xpanding this into a new book.

On moderation of comments. I tend to visit Lost Legacy several times a day, as I work on my PC most days.
Thanks for your support.

11:35 am  
Blogger Brian Woods said...

To Become an Economist: Simple. Observe reality - in sofar as you can.

I was shocked to discover that economics is actually a collection of 'religious nuts', complete with their competing theologies; Austrian, Chicago; Wal-Mart, etc. Totally daft - but completely rational from a Hobbesian perspective.

Some economists allege they are 'scientific' and immerse themselves in numerical saunas to prove their pedigree. On close inspection you will observe that they are wearing wrap-around spectacles with opaque lenses, with embedded Head-up displays which constantly play their favourite promotional film. Audio receptors are covered with sound-proof objects. It gets even better. They give some of these guys (gals need not apply!) big awards!!! For what. Guilding the Emperor's non-existent cloths!

Now if this sounds like a rant; it is. If economics is to mean anything, then it has to be applicable to real-world problems and to have a single unifying set of theoretical concepts - like physics and chemistry. You do not have different Schools of Physics or different Schools of Chemistry. Such an idea is absurd. If any economist ever comes up with anything like Ohm's Law or Einstein's equation, or Newton's laws of motion, or the second law of thermodynamics: well that would be a breakthrough.

In the meantime, read Galbraith (pere), Frederick Soddy, and Georgescu-Roegen for a 'different' take on economics.

But you must excuse me, I have to get back to my studies - I am an Economics and Politics undergrad!

Brian P

ps: the current Economic Deity is The Great God of Growth!

12:01 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thanks. Many economists would agree with you. I do.

First, get your degree(s) then come back to economics.

Second, observe, data, test and in/validate; look at how a situation occurred and what ideas moved the actors, then, with limited expectations, sugggest how the process may be improved "slowly and gradually", and observe what happens.

Third, apply your politics to reveal the process.

Fourth, don't expect major changes of direction! Smell the coffee! Try to educate others, and the nexr generations.


6:11 pm  
Blogger Brian Woods said...

Gavin, Much obliged.

Attempting to change a persons belief system is a dead loser. They have to accomplish that themselves. However, a traumatic event may trigger a re-evaluation, which just may, result in a paradigm shift.

I decided to study econ. because I suspect that we (in the Permagrowth economies) are either approaching - or may even be at- a tipping point, and I had no idea about how we got ourselves into the economic and financial mess we are in. My level of illumination is about 25W at present, but I live in hope!

WRT observation and conjecture:I would be a Popper follower, with a seasoning of Feynman. I get a rough time at tutorials.

As for educating others! I do try - cautiously, by asking them questions. But what in God's name are they producing from the secondary school systems? These youngsters know with religious certainty, everything about everything! That is, they know all the answers. Its the questions that seem to be a problem!

I find the POL interesting and useful, but cognitive psychology might offer better insights.

Picked this up on a blog this evening: (

... also, the true sign of competence is;
1) knowing what you know and knowing what you don't,
2) having the discernment to know the difference.

No comment is needed.

Brian P

7:47 pm  

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