Editor's Note: How many of us truly understand what Economists do on a daily basis? We see them on the news from time to time or especially when national budgets are to be presented, maybe even when there's a major economic event.
It's a question BuzzHub asked Economics Graduate T'Vaughn Lews - a frequent columnist on Buzz Hub and he shared with us "The Secret Lives of Economists."
"When I came up to Cambridge (in October 1921) to read economics, I did not have much idea of what it was about."
Joan Robinson, a brilliant, renowned British economist, expressed the essence of what people really know about economics and its practitioners. Many have a vague idea of what economists really do and the significance of their work. The masses may notice them from time to time on television screens, hear them make comments on current issues, scold them for their harsh outlooks on reality, or even raise an eyebrow at their peculiarities. Their presence is greatly noticed by the general public especially around budgets. Some even go as far as to say that an economist becomes relevant in times of crisis.
Economists are seen as abstract, calculating and even aloof at times because of the ‘complexity’ of their art. Their expertise touches a wide repertoire of areas spanning from health, finance, agriculture, development, trade, energy, mathematics, behaviour and even happiness (Yes I said it, happiness. There is a branch of economics termed Happy Economics). But if I were to ask-What do economists really do? Could you answer definitively? Do you know what the day in life of an economist is like?
The Truth Revealed
To be honest there is some truth in economists being seen to live in the "Ivory tower" of our discipline because of the quantitative nature of the field. Because some of us may tend to be blinded by these figures, it can be a challenge for us to simplify all that jibber jabber of growth models, forecasts, differentials, marginal analyses and the like into easy, user- friendly information that is applicable and relevant to the everyday man. However, many people do not get to see the other side of an economist (the same can be said for every other veritable technocrat) which is really and truly the core of their discipline.
Economists are some of the few technocrats that have unglamorous, low key and even unseen functions, but the skillful application of these functions are critical to the smooth, day-to-day operations of a firm, a conglomerate, a nation and even the world as we know it. An economist surprisingly can take many forms. One unobvious form can be a housewife/househusband.
The term ‘economics’ comes from a Greek word okionomia which literally means “household management” or “management of house affairs.” A housewife/househusband basically takes care of all the duties in her household such as cooking, washing, cleaning and purchasing groceries. S/he can do this because they appropriate the resources they receive (income most times from their spouse etc.) to specific tasks that satisfy the priorities/needs of the household. In a similar vein, economists are charged with the responsibility of running the ‘household’ affairs of a business, state or the world economy.
Could you imagine an economist that is haphazard, careless and uncertain being charged with the responsibility of managing the exchange rate of a country? Or let’s go further, can you envision such an economist advising the Minister of Finance of a state for an upcoming budget? Certainly not! The sheer chaos that would ensue afterward can have massive implications for the country’s survival. This is one of the many roles of an economist that the public is not privy to. An unseen managerial or consultative decision by one or a few experts has far-reaching impact on all.
Economists are present in private and public enterprise and their influence, though not publicly seen, is quite essential in both fields. In the private enterprise, economists research, advise and devise policies and strategies that help grow businesses, sectors and ultimately the country at large. They are able to tell businessmen (or businesswomen) which fields are the next ‘big thing’; report and forecast on trends in the markets (the stock exchange is one such area); create simplified models to explain economic phenomena and the list can go on indefinitely. If it were not for economists’ advice and expertise in the aforementioned areas many of the successful businesses that exist today may not be around. The truth is the business community listens carefully to what economists say and at most times take heed.
In the domain of public enterprise, economists are very active as well. Economists are found in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Development, Housing, Infrastructure and so on. Some of them are more qualitative and lend their assistance in the areas of Environment, Gender Relations and Agriculture whilst the quantitative ones are more engaged in areas like statistical offices, census planning, econometrics or even monetary policy (usually at the Central Bank). Economists in public enterprise may often take on advisory roles and often times are placed on state boards to lend an objective, clinical look at things. Right here in Trinidad and Tobago, we saw the government creating an Economic Advisory Board which included a Health Economist, Professor Karl Theodore, an Environmental Economist, Dr Marlene Attzs and a former Deputy Governor/Director of Research at the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Terrence W. Farrell. Irrespective of the type of sector an economist may choose, private or public, their influence is fundamental for the efficient and seamless operations of any country.
Today’s generation of economists though are mixing things up quite a lot. Rather than isolate themselves in the realm of academia, economists today are taking up the mantle of becoming educators. Many of them write articles for the general public in the newspaper; teach at secondary schools, universities or even consult officials on sectors like education, finance and even agriculture. For what purpose though? Basically economists are trying to engage more sections of the populace on matters that affect their everyday lives. They simplify economic phenomena in nonprofessional’s language so that the public can really see the significance of economics in their circumstances.
By reaching out to the public more and more, economists are slowing descending from that illustrious “ivory tower” that they have built and at the same time inadvertently segregated themselves from reality and the masses.
“You’re just probably not good enough”
"My pressure I think is never being good enough or smart enough to match the demands of Academia. The research and publications seem to impact more on your qualifications as an Economist than what you do and how you think."
To hear one person say that you are not “good enough” is a crushing blow in itself but to have an entire field- especially your fellow colleagues, express that sentiment is to have the flood gates of despair and hopelessness opened upon you. The world of academia for economics is ruthless and unrelenting- it stresses intelligence, mathematical acumen, qualification and research. This field tends to place an accent on what you produce as opposed to who you are as an individual.
Many of us, myself included, in this field define ourselves by our profession. We see economics in everything around us- when we go to the supermarket, or the gas station or even at the beach. We eat, live, breathe and dream economics. Economics is our life.
This passion for the field (it can also apply to other technocrats) creates an atmosphere of competition, and as such, many aspire to the highest echelons of the economic fraternity. Often times, the fraternity may not see the difference that an economist may make in his own circles. A simple thing as taking the time to guide a lost student about his prospective career, or listening to a disgruntled member of the public or helping someone in your neighbourhood mostly goes unknown by the fraternity, but the individuals affected do not forget its impact.
To me good is relative. What matters to me is how I can impact the lives of the people around me in a positive way and thereby spur growth and development. This is what economics means to me, and is my secret life as an economist.
T'Vaughn Lews is an Economics Graduate of the University of the West Indies.
(Photo courtesy: Texas Gearup)