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Get Ethics beyond 'Have a Nice Career' (PART 1)
Vinod Anand | 18 Jan 2012

In order to become a good and effective economist, one should also be a good human being essentially in the ethical sense; otherwise all the efforts as an economist would fail.

AN ECONOMIST should be well-informed about the economy He should also be wise about the place of economics in the conversation of humanity. He should be imaginative, energetic, empirically sound, or scientifically reliable. The economist being evaluated has never met a farmer or worker or business person. He doesn't have a clue what the national income was fast year. He makes up 'stylized facts' about history as he goes along. He has no idea how economic advice works out in practice. He couldn't convince a freshman about the virtue of markets on a bet.

He's never read The Wealth of Nations, not to speak of The Theory of Monopolistic Competition or The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. He's not scholarly, scientific, learned, curious, thorough, patient, serious, imaginative, broad-minded, humane, and involved. He doesn't read books. He doesn't talk to sociologists or historians or philosophers. He's never thought in depth about the society he's in. But he's smart. The evaluative vocabulary of economic science especially in developed countries consists of two adjectives, smart and nice, plus the adverb not very. The words are genuinely American and genuinely economic.

In Paris the nice-guy talk would not get you very far. In Japan being nice means conforming rigidly to a social role in a strict hierarchy, which is not what makes Bob Solow the classic nice guy in American economics. Bob has been 'smart' too, since the 1950s. In Britain smart means 'well dressed', which is not obviously relevant to economic science. The corresponding British word is clever and is usually deprecating, as in 'too clever by half' in Dutch economics the smart young people are called 'whiz kids' (using the English phrase; you know about the Dutch and languages), with just that degree of doubt in the voice.

Among historians even in America to call someone 'smart' would simply be puzzling. Smart, schmart. What books has he written? Among biologists being smart doesn't sound like it would win NSF money, if not combined with care and imagination in running experiments. Among political scientists being 'bright' entails reading more hard books at a younger age than a smart economist would believe humanly possibleat any rate it entails such reading among the political scientists who have not abandoned their craft to become second-rate economists.

Even mathematicians don't usually talk about how smart a person is in the economist's sense. I suspect that the only other field in which being smart has the same valence as economics is theoretical physics, which from popular accounts (chiefly Richard Feynman, I admit) appears to consist of smarty-pants guy undergraduates who prefer drinking and practical jokes to studying. But, boy, are they smart.

The word matters because it sets the intellectual agenda of modern economics. Back when economists were not consumed with a desire to be reckoned smart, they were better empiricists and philosophers (not usually simultaneously, which was a problem). Smart says: Don't read much. Figure it out yourself. Think fast, nor deep or thorough. Force the assumptions to do the work. Fake it.

But the other part, the 'nice guy' part, matters, too. Anyway, people talk about it a lot. And in truth, contrary to the received view on the Method of science, character does matter in science. The received view is that The Facts or The Truth Will Out, regardless of character. Thus the journalist Steven Levy on the obnoxious biologist Gerald Edelman: 'Ultimately, of course, none of Edelman's personal traits will matter when it comes to determining whether or not his notion of a neuronal-group selection is valid. Science, Edelman's god, will administer the test. The facts will out? (1994, 73).

One wonders why science journalists write so much about character if they actually believe in fact- and truth-outing. The hypothesis is contradicted by every modern historical and sociological study about how science works and is contradicted even by the stories by the science writers themselves. A page earlier Levy quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett explaining why Edelman?s work is often ignored: Edelman 'makes it impossible for people to listen. He's gone around and offended people, criticized people, and misrepresented and insulted them. He's brought a lot of this on himself.

Dennett's indignation does not sound like The Facts or The Truth Coming Out. It sounds, as it often does when economists are explaining why they ignore some non-powerful person who is 'not a very nice guy,' more like a childish excuse for not bothering to face the facts or the truth. Heh, shoot the messenger. It sounds like a complaint?irrelevant under the hypothesis that The Facts Will Out?

that Edelman is not a nice guy, so it serves him right, and we have permission therefore to remain ignorant and misled about what he is arguing. We could improve our evaluations of economists if we dropped the words smart and nice and started using the more grownup and complicated word good. Good is complicated because it has a 3,000-year history of written thinking behind it. Smart and nice, by contrast, have no thinking at all behind them. The trouble with smart is that it celebrates intellectual qualities that reach a maximum around age 19. That may be OK in mathematics, but it?s bad in economics, which makes important use also of qualities that peak at 29 or 39 or 79. Of course, if you define economics to be a depraved form of mathematics, as we tried doing for a while, then smart in the IQ sense is going to be all that matters. But an economics back on a factual track, an economics in the 1990s, cannot really believe it, can it? So smart won?t do for grownups in science, will it, now?Likewise with nice. It celebrates ethical qualities that reach a maximum around age 19. Everyone is ?nice? at 19, because all 19-year olds want to be popular, and none has a position of authority to abuse. You learn whether someone is a mensch despite surface brusqueness, the way Harry Johnson was, or on the other hand a momzer despite surface wit, the way George Stigler was, only when a Johnson or a Stigler has had mature opportunities to screw people.