Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan have penned a Max Plank SciencesPo discussion paper on the traits of the economics profession. In The Superiority of Economists, the authors write: “Taken together, these traits constitute what we call the superiority of economists, where economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement. While this superiority has certainly fueled economists’ practical involvement and their considerable influence over the economy, it has also exposed them more to conflicts of interests, political critique, even derision.”
I suppose as a critique of the profession, none of this is particularly new but it is quite interesting having it all summarized in one convenient location. According to the authors, economists see themselves at the top of the social science disciplinary hierarchy given their view of other social science disciplines as having less powerful analytical tools, their role in public policy debate and discourse and the fact that they command some of the highest levels of compensation particularly in American arts and science faculties. Economics emphasizes quantitative reasoning (interpreted as a sign of higher intellectual capabilities), is male dominated and rather insular in its relationship with the other social sciences. Indeed, according to the authors, it is the rise of the field of finance and business school connections that are the main purveyors of ‘interdisciplinary’ references for economics.
The discipline is also more hierarchical than social sciences such as political science or sociology and the field’s major intellectual players – both individuals and departments -are seen as dominating the management of the profession in terms of both publication in top journals via a bias towards in-house authors and hiring practices as well as through its main association – the American Economic Association.
In dealing with such a critique, I am of course just a simple country economist and should await the guidance and direction of my hierarchy's high command based in Nashville. However, as an economic historian, I am a bit concerned that I may be considered by the authors as an academic colonizer. As they write: “From the vantage point of sociologists, geographers, historians, political scientists or even psychologists, economists often resemble colonists settling on their land…They may ask for guidance upon arrival, even partner-up with the locals (with whom they share some of the same data). But they are unlikely to learn much from them, as they often prefer to deploy their own techniques.” It does very much sound like Roman Legions setting up camp across the Rhine and beginning a process of romanization of the surrounding countryside. We all know what eventually happened to Publius Quinctilius Varus and one wonders if the authors of the paper secretly hope our patrician profession will eventually march into its own Teutoburg forest.
It is all very pointed language and taken all together, it is to say a rather unflattering portrait of the profession as a self-centered, financially privileged, male dominated clique of academic imperialists. I am not really certain if their paper is meant to be a clarion call to the economics profession or simply a guide to economists for the other social sciences. If the former, it would have been useful to have been provided with some suggestions as to how the economics profession should go about trying to become kinder and gentler. However, if their assessment of the profession is accurate, the report will probably be like so much water off a duck’s back. By the way, their paper is forthcoming in the Winter 2015 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.