Friday, September 4, 2020

Should you think like an economist?

In some introductory economics textbooks there is a section called "Thinking like an economist." There is even a podcast with this title. Probably a lot of what goes below this title is very interesting. But sending the message that students, or the public in general, should think like an economist (as if economists had a special, and good, way of thinking), is something I find hard to agree with.

In a recent talk and in her last book with Banerjee, Esther Duflo pointed out that the profession of economist is dominated by white men. In the context of the black lives matter movement, this has facilitated the knowledge of examples of discrimination and racism in the profession. Some have even talked about a culture of abuse in some academic or institutional environments. Of course, not all institutions or individual economists are racist or abusive, but there are serious doubts that the "representative economist" is an exemplary thinking person.

In questionnaires and experiments, subjects trained as economists tend to be more selfish and less altruist than average subjects. Compared to other academic disciplines, economists are more insular and self-confident, and less prone to cooperate with professionals from other scientific domains. There are some exceptions to this, like the CORE project, but the fact that this project is causing an impact and is sold as something new, shows that the profession is dominated by the opposite trend. 

As Duflo argues in the above mentioned talk, one reason why economists have almost as bad a reputation as politicians is that they are very bad at making predicitons, as specialist Philip Tetlock explains in his work. That is because they think too much as hedgehogs and not enough as foxes. Also, economists tend to overrate financial incentives as opposed to intrinsic motivation, which dominates in communities that are good at overcoming free-riding problems. To alleviate such social dilemmas, one perhaps should think less like the average economist and more like many people who are not economists, but who think like the cooperative species that we are.

Economists should aspire to be just good scientists, and be open to the influence of a variety of disciplines, including humanistic ones. Once a question is posed or a hypothesis is formulated, the methods should be those of the scientific method. In the selection of topics, there will be different approaches, different ways to think. There are good and bad economists, honest and dishonest ones, left wing and right wing, nationalists and cosmopolitans. Think like an economist? Which one?

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