Friday Food for Thought: “I’m an Economist”

The Kruk Stops Here

John Kruk famously said, “I ain’t an athlete, lady, I’m a baseball player.”

For those of you who don’t know the (possibly apocryphal) tale, John Kruk was a rather fat man with a mullet, who could hit a baseball better than most people in the world.  Kruk’s view was that it wasn’t any “athletic” gifts, per se, that allowed him to hit so well, but rather his crazy hand-eye coordination and phenomenal reflexes.

After a game, a woman spotted him smoking a cigarette and she started to give him the business about how an athlete shouldn’t smoke, his body is a temple, to think about the kids, and on and on.

His infamous response is the title of his autobiography.

So, what does this have to do with Friday Food for Though?. Well, when people find out that I’m an economist, they will typically say things like, “Oh, this must be a really interesting time for you.”

Why is that?

“Oh, you know, because of all the things going on in the stock market and the economy and stuff like that.”

Lady, I don’t know about that sort of thing — I’m an economist.

Or perhaps that’s what we economists are supposed to do — study the economy. Well, I guess that’s one answer, but I don’t think it’s my answer.  I mean, I know something about what’s going on with the fiscal stimulus and the multiplier effect, but as Robert Barro points out, that it certainly not what I do.

For other answers on what economics is, you might consult Roger Backhouse and Steven Medema in a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives piece, “On the Definition of Economics.”  They point out, correctly:

At a time when economists are tackling subjects as diverse as growth, auctions, crime, and religion with a methodological toolkit that includes real analysis, econometrics, laboratory experiments, and historical case studies, and when they are debating the explanatory roles of rationality and behavioral norms, any concise definition of economics is likely to be inadequate.

Indeed, they run through a few concise definitions from various texts, and none seems  to quite describe what we’re up to down here on Briggs 2nd.  These quotes from various standard intro texts are cut directly from the article:

  • Economics is the study of economies, at both the level of individuals and of society as a whole (Krugman and Wells, 2004, p. 2).
  • Economics is the study of how human beings coordinate their wants and desires, given the decision-making mechanisms, social customs, and political realities of the society (Colander, 2006a, p. 4).
  • Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources (Mankiw, 2001, p. 4).
  • [Economics is the] social science that studies the choices that individuals, businesses, governments, and entire societies make as they cope with scarcity (Bade and Parkin, 2002, p. 5).
  • [E]conomics is the study of human behavior, with a particular focus on human decision making (Gwartney, Stroup, Sobel, and MacPherson 2006, p. 5).

I’m pretty sure the authors of the text I use, Bergstrom and Miller, don’t offer up a definition.  And the other book I’m thinking about using, Cowen and Tabarrok, focuses more on getting “the big ideas” across, rather than winnowing the meaning of economics down to a sentence or two.

Whatever your thoughts, it’s often useful to sit back and think what it is that your discipline is all about — what makes it a discipline rather than just a collection of seemingly related topics and classes.

As Professor Finkler pointed out earlier this week, the JEP has opened up its archives so you can check it out for yourself.

One thought on “Friday Food for Thought: “I’m an Economist””

  1. You forgot Viner’s: “Economics is what economists do.”

    Shouldn’t economists know something about the economy?

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