14 October 2009

Why Be an Economist?

A Profound Question

or more realistically

A self absorbed journey through some linguistic constructs in an attempt to justify my existence, and silence the proverbial Jewish mother in my brain that is telling me "it is not to late to go to medical school."

Waking up today and finding myself in my 4th year of a PhD program in economics has lead me to question what is this profession that I am spending so long to become a part of? Many days I find myself hating "economists" and thinking "I am nothing like these people", other days I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by such interesting and thought provoking individuals, who are also good, and caring human beings (reminder I attend UMass not a "normal econ school").

Regardless of my feelings about those around me I usually don't feel like an economist, I certainly am following a vastly different career path than most economists. I often can't remember what attracted me to the field in the first place. The following writings are an attempt to examine in a broad sense what the role of economics is, and hopefully arrive at an answer as to why I continue to follow this path.

So what is it that an economist does? In the biggest picture sense an economist is a social theorist who chooses economic processes as entry points of their social analysis. Already have arrived at a problem. The traditional (at least within my epistemological training) way of viewing society is as a jumble of political, cultural, economic, and natural processes. These processes overdetermine each other (are each other's causes and effects, and neither cause or effect), however what draws the lines between these processes into distinct linguistic categories? What makes a given process a political process rather than a cultural process? Voting for instance, traditionally defined as a political process, but how do I know this? In the linguistics of the analysis lies the answer (traditionally). These linguistic categories are historically contingent and overdetermined. That is, how we have used words in the past to define processes, and how processes have been analyzed before, as well as many other factors, allows us to use these linguistic categories to compartmentalize processes into political, economic, etc. Relying on this method of distinguishing processes based on linguistic tradition is essential for me, or the world falls out of any recognizable order, and meaningful analysis becomes impossible...Therefore an economist is someone who chooses economic entry points for social analysis.

At some point in my life the economic processes of society seemed to have primacy, or at very least seemed like a logical entry point to achieve my goals. I wanted to be an economist. There was no "ah ha" moment for me in economics, and frankly no specific things stand out in my consciousness that helped to overdetermine the choice to peruse economics. This seems important as it is different from how my mind works in reflection on most other topics, for instance I remember two specific determinants that shaped my decision to propose Catholic marriage to Alison. That being said, logically when I decided to study economics, if political entry points had made more sense to me, or cultural, or natural, I would have made another choice as to my path through the education system. The choice to enter the academic system at all is being intentionally ignored here.

Having reached a point in my life (today) where I more or less accept that economic processes are valid as (over)determinants, but they do not hold any special place in my heart why continue in this field? What good can be done here? It is clear that work along these lines (self analyzing postmodern gibberish) will never be accepted by a discipline that values mathematical proof, however I continue to engage in it. Why do I stay in a field and refuse to work within the commonly accepted boundaries of that field? What is to be gained? I still want to be an economist, but I don't want to do what I perceive most economists as doing. In terms of the big picture however the choice of an economic entry point does not feel wrong, we have been reduced to level of abstract intuition. Returning again, what do economists do that attracts me?

Economists choose an entry point out of the infinity of processes that fit into our linguistic construct of what constitutes economics, and then theorize about it, or in the case of our bastard cousins econometricians, try to empirically show that their selected process holds to some arbitrary standard of truth. It is essential to believe that theorizing about our economic entry points is shaping the world in a positive way to have desire to continue in the profession.

So leaving aside what has determined the choice of entry point to be economic, we move forward into a theory. Our analysis of these theories will change the world, there is no doubt about that. It is impossible not to change the world when we do theory if they are by their natures overdetermined. My teaching, my social interaction, my very life is complexly shaped by my engagement with theories that have economic entry points, as well as those that do not, however I am making a conscious decision to have economic entry points in my own work. But the underlying question remains: Am I changing the world for the better, or just changing the world? (This is not to say that my changes are not insignificant or arbitrary, but my very existence changes the world) I know that my goals in theory are for a better world, but really I cannot by definition begin to understand all of the consequences of my actions.
This is where I am stuck. The big problem.
I know that I want greater world equality, to live under a less exploitative system of production, but more importantly to advance human civilization through science and technology at the fastest rate possible, to know God....while yippee aren't I a fucking wonderful person? But is studying economics the best way to chase my goals? In a broader sense are my goals worth chasing, and where will I obtain an answer to this question?

But the problem remains, if these are my goals, and the consequences of my actions are unknowable, why study economics? Because the consequences of influencing the world in the desired direction with other entry points besides economics are just as unknowable, and I have already invested a lot of time working in economics because of reasons I no longer remember? How very unsatisfactory of a reason. But for me it is part of the Why in the statement "I am an economist"
To return to the title "Why be an Economist?" I don't have a better answer than "It is as good as being a ......fill in the blank", and it is how you do your job matters just as much as what your job is.

That was hopefully the most narcissistic post for the remainder of the year.....I can't help but mix self absorption with self reflection.