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Best advice to an aspiring economist — don’t be an economist

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From Lars Syll And still, amidst all this tumult, many economists are disinclined to rethink the foundations of their field. It reminds me of the closing joke in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall. A guy has a crazy brother who thinks he is a chicken.  The doctor asks, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy replies, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ ” Why is the free-market discourse so perdurable despite so many social, ecological, and political realities that call its logic and categories of thought into question?  Because the whole field, despite its flaws, is functional enough and entrenched. It needs the eggs — the certitude of quantitative analysis aping the hard sciences, the credentialed expertise always in demand by powerful institutions, the prestige that comes with proximity to

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from Lars Syll

And still, amidst all this tumult, many economists are disinclined to rethink the foundations of their field. It reminds me of the closing joke in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall. A guy has a crazy brother who thinks he is a chicken.  The doctor asks, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy replies, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ ”

Best advice to an aspiring economist — don’t be an economistWhy is the free-market discourse so perdurable despite so many social, ecological, and political realities that call its logic and categories of thought into question?  Because the whole field, despite its flaws, is functional enough and entrenched. It needs the eggs — the certitude of quantitative analysis aping the hard sciences, the credentialed expertise always in demand by powerful institutions, the prestige that comes with proximity to power.

But behind these factors, there is a new world a-bornin’ that economics needs to engage with and understand. There are brilliant economic thinkers like Kate Raworth, inventor of “doughnut economics” framework; the writings of degrowth economist Jason Hickel and the late anthropologist David Graeber; the thinkers associated with the web journal Real World Economics; and a number of student associations clamoring for new economic paradigms and pedagogy. Beyond reading the right things, I find that it helps a lot to hang out with the right crowd, listen to serious new voices, and bring one’s full humanity to the questions of the moment.

Economists of all ages – but especially younger ones who have the suppleness and imagination to grow – need to pay attention to these outsider voices. There is a new world that is fast-overtaking us, and it needs to be seen and explained on its own terms.

David Bollier / Evonomics

A science that doesn’t self-reflect on its own history and asks important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.

Already back in 1991, a commission chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, and Joseph Stiglitz, reported from own experience “that it is an underemphasis on the ‘linkages’ between tools, both theory and econometrics, and ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,” and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.” And in conclusion, they wrote that “graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”

Not much is different today. Economics — and economics education — is still in dire need of a remake.

More and more young economics students want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. They want something other than the same old mainstream catechism. They don’t want to be force-fed with useless and harmfully irrelevant mainstream theories and models.

About Lars Syll
Lars Syll
Lars Jörgen Pålsson Syll (born November 5, 1957) is a Swedish economist who is a Professor of Social Studies and Associate professor of Economic History at Malmö University College. Pålsson Syll has been a prominent contributor to the economic debate in Sweden over the global financial crisis that began in 2008.

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