Sunday, July 30, 2017

Was Adam Smith An Economist? A Mediocre Economist's Identity Crisis

Let me begin by saying that I am not exhibiting fake modesty by admitting to being a mediocre economist. In fact, a better title would have been "... An Inferior Economist...," if we take mediocre literally (in the middle). Were I any good at Economics, I would not be where I am, or having these thoughts; but I am extremely grateful for being where I am, which is much more than I deserve. Nonetheless, I now have an identify crisis.

The crisis is precipitated by a monotonous stream of rejections by journal and book editors, who all tell me that whatever I submitted is not Economics. The issue is not technical rigor; some of those articles are relatively technical, and some book-oriented writings are totally non-technical. The crisis was further exacerbated when two luminaries of econometrics separately volunteered advice that I should pick up where I had left off in my work on Bayesian updating (one of them very kindly said that he still cites my 1995 JASA paper with David Grether, and thinks that it has not yet been surpassed although more work is needed).

By asking whether Adam Smith was an Economist, I am not being facetious or comparing my work with his, David Hume's before him, or Ibn Khaldun long before them all. I am merely confused about the nature of the questions that I am asking (about religion, ethics, perceptions of injustice, and Economics) not being considered Economics.

Nearly three decades ago, in Fall 1988, I was a fresh PhD and rookie assistant professor of Economics at Rochester. I went to a supercomputing conference at Cornell, and in the evening, as usual, conference participants went to a bar (I went to bars with friends, colleagues, and mentors, even though I do not drink; both because I was a useful designated driver, and because this was a virtually mandatory part of professional socialization).

I ended up in a booth, squeezed against the wall. Next to me sat Ed Prescott, already a superstar economist, although it was still many years before he received the Bank of Sweden Prize in honor of Alfred Nobel (known somewhat pretentiously as "the Nobel Prize in Economics," and one should read the history of this prize and its objective to portray Economics as a scientific field; thus giving greater political power to economists, bankers, and others).

He asked me what I did, and then what my dissertation was about. I was mortified, but told him that it was about estimation and inference in chaotic dynamical systems. I had already known that he had very low and well known opinions both about econometrics and about work on chaos theory in economics;  so I was bracing myself for some tough words.

Instead, he smiled kindly, and said: "It's OK! You have to prove that you are not a math wimp. And every five years or so, you have to publish another paper to prove that you are still not a math wimp. But in between, you can write some Economics. And remember this: Unless you can explain the substance to any drunk guy next to you at a bar, it's not Economics."

He was not himself drunk, as the evening had just started. The meaning was obvious: Play the game by its rules so that you may have the intellectual privilege of working on real Economics. I already knew that. Had it not been for my abilities (limited as they may be) in mathematics and computing, I would have never been admitted to a PhD program, received a degree, had academic jobs, or received tenure.

Had I been even a tenth as good as Prescott or the other two luminaries to whom I spoke recently (who have not won the Bank of Sweden prize... yet), I could have probably juggled the two. But I was never that good, and now in my mid 50s, with no graduate students or junior coauthors on whose energy and intellect I can rely, I cannot read as fast, retain information as long, or absorb new math and technology as proficiently. So, I have to make a choice.

Do I write about what is important to me, and what I consider to be Economics, or do I write what would be read and can be published by Economists (or other "social scientists," I had the same problem with editors in Political Science and Sociology)?

In a recent seminar for graduate students, wherein I presented some empirical results, I gave them the unequivocal advice: "Don't do what I do. Don't work on what you're interested in. To graduate and get a job, you need to work on what others are interested in." But it is difficult to follow this advice in my mid 50s for the sole purpose of retaining partial respect of my colleagues (which is a fool's errand, in any case), and I have the luxury of tenure but not the luxury of intelligence, work ethic, and young collaborators who can allow me to engage with what others are interested in while contributing to real Economics (as luminaries like Prescott could do and preach). That, of course, is assuming that Economics is the field in which people like Adam Smith were interested.


Post a Comment

<< Home