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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Who is an economist?

A student asked me this a few weeks ago, and I was reminded of it again when reading a recent Freakonomics post in which Levitt points out that there are several economists among the 203 finalists for Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People:
As I write this, my friend Roland Fryer is ranked 38th. Ben Bernanke is at 133, Tim Geithner is at 152 (does he count as an economist?), Nouriel Roubini is at 161, Paul Krugman is at 168, Nate Silver is at 181 (not an economist, but close enough), and Richard Thaler is at 184.
I'm guessing that a lot of people read that and thought, "what does he mean 'does Tim Geithner count as an economist'? Isn't Geithner the Treasury Secretary, the one who is basically 'in charge' of the economy?" Well, yes, and given that some economists don't think Geithner is doing such a great job, it could be that Levitt is making a somewhat sarcastic swipe at Geithner's abilities as an economist. But it could also be that Levitt is doing what most academic economists do and defining 'economist' as someone who specifically has a Ph.D. in economics (according to Wikipedia, Geithner has an M.A. in International Economics and East Asian studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies). That's the answer I gave my student - if someone tells me they are an economist, I will assume they have a Ph.D. in the field.

I wonder if this holds in other fields as well, or if other economists apply as high a standard (e.g., can someone claim to be an economist if they 'only' have a Masters degree?). For me, the Ph.D. distinction comes from feeling like grad school is one long initiation into this geeky club. There's the hazing stage (first year) and then the indoctrination and 'rebirth' as the dissertation process basically strips you of all ego before you are accepted into the ranks of the scholars. It's hard to imagine making it through all that if you haven't drunk pretty deeply from the kool-aid.

But is a Ph.D. necessary or just sufficient? It's certainly possible for people to 'think like economists' without the advanced degree (I hope so or I don't know what we're all doing here talking about teaching econ!). And there are people doing the work that economists do without the advanced degree (e.g., Geithner)). So what really defines an economist? I'm curious what you all think...

1 comment:

  1. Ah, the first comment, even if the question is a week old.

    I'm reminded that Kenneth Boulding (famously) did not complete his doctorate.

    Seriously, though. I suspect that among PhDs, the answer would be that the doctorate is essential. I'm inclined to agree. Part of "being an economist" goes beyond "thinking like an economist." I think it includes having the background and training to do research in economics, and, for that, the MA/MS is sufficient in only a few cases. Of course, while the PhD might be close to necessary, it also is not sufficient.

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