Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Who Needs Us?

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb beats up on economics education this morning. It's all wholesome fun though I would say it might help if he could disentangle the three or four separate issues that his commentary seems to present. But let me focus on one sentence:
Never, and I mean never, during the financial crisis, where we’d leave work on Friday and wonder whether or not the world would collapse during that weekend or what kind of market we’d walk into on Monday, did I think “man I wish there were more academic economists around.”
That's true and telling, but I wonder if it isn't true of almost every profession. Somebody passes out at the ball game. Does anyone shout: "is there a licensed professional aroma therapist in the house?"

You get my point. I suspect that part of the problem here is the mismatch between the skill required and the professional certification scheme. Were I a manager of, say, a world wide retailing chain, I might like to have folks around who could tell me stuff about how the economy really works. I might find some of them in the econ department; might not. At best, I suspect I'd look to the academic credential as (a) a rule-of-thumb, first-iteration sorting mechanism; or (b) a kind of cover-your-backside defense against future criticism (well, I hired a professional!). That latter may explain the particular popularity of licensing schemes in, e.g., education, where it is so hard to come up with agreed measures of good performance (and, perhaps, even harder to predict who will make them).

But there is another issue: I suspect most of us vastly overrate the importance of our own occupation. I suppose we have to, just to keep sane. Bur how many times has someone told uou how much better the world would be if only more people understood the need for the services of ( insert profession of speaker here)? The point is made with great sincerity and sometimes it may even be right but there's a kind of poignance about the earnestness with which it is advanced.

I suppose the one class of cases where the need for the specialist is self-evident are those where there is an immediate threat to physical well-being, as in "is there a doctor in the house?" or, one step down the ladder, "somebody call a cop" (0r simply "security!"). An interesting borderline case is the dentist. Most dentists I know are (a) entrepreneurs who (b) have to persuade people to give them money in exchange for (c) inflicting pain on the giver. In any event, I can believe that the banksters are not pining for the services of an academic economist. But from time to time, I bet they'd be glad to have the phone number of a bail bondsman.

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