“It is good to be an economist, it is better to be a social scientist”

By Paul

Richard Easterlin’s book The Reluctant Economist should be more widely read; some excerpts from the first chapter (emphasis mine) -

“Economic theory, as taught to undergraduate and graduate students, starts from the assumption that preferences are given and unchanging. Yet a little reflection by economists on their graduate school experience should disabuse them of this notion. Graduate school not only teaches subject matter but also the values of the economics profession – what are the important subjects of economic research, what is the status hierarchy of the profession, which individuals are the proper role models. Graduate training is indoctrination (Klamer and Colander 1990; Reder 1999)…

I took two courses from Kuznets, one in statistics, which chiefly conveyed a strong skepticism toward the field and urged the use of simple, understandable methods, and one in economic development, which was essentially a course in general economic history. This development course, too, transmitted a strong sense of skepticism, not, however, toward economic history but toward economic theory. Kuznets’s basic point was simple: the “givens” of economics – technology, tastes, and institutions – are the key actors in historical change, and hence most economic theory has, at best, only limited relevance to understanding long-term change. In Kuznets’s view, what was then called “development theory” – even the widely hailed work of Schumpeter – lacked concrete empirical reference.

I was impressed by Kuznets’s intellect, as were graduate economics students generally, but these courses did not make me into a Kuznetsian. Rather, it was chiefly what Kuznets wrote. As a graduate student, I collaborated on several studies of national income with Raymond T. Bowman, the economics department chairman and a great admirer of Kuznets. Thanks largely to Bowman’s urging, I also did a thesis under Kuznets’s direction on conceptual aspects of the measurement of economic growth. As a result of these two lines of work, I read virtually everything Kuznets had written on national income and economic growth. It was this reading that demonstrated for me the scope, depth, and brilliance of Kuznets’s mind.

Kuznets believed that insight into other times and places started not from economic theory but from knowledge of the facts – especially quantitative facts. It is typical of Kuznets that one of his rare speculative pieces, “Towards a Theory of Economic Growth,” is mostly devoted to summarizing the facts that growth theory must explain. In the present age of endogenous technical change and the “new” growth theory, this article remains well worth reading (Kuznets 1955, see also Kuznets 1966).

Kuznets also believed that it is important to know the scholarly literature of specialists in the study of other times and places. As work on my dissertation led to a growing interest in economic development and away from macroeconomic policy, Kuznets channeled me into an interdisciplinary seminar on South Asia, where I came into contact with scholars doing humanistic and social science research on India and came to know some leading Indian scholars such as N. V. Sovani. Kuznets also encouraged my tutelage in the literature of economic history by Daniel Thorner, who was himself an eminent scholar of Indian economic history…

This three-year project affected my development in two ways. For one thing, it gave me my first practical experience in economic measurement. I learned firsthand what had already been clear from Kuznets’s writings: that there is no measurement without theory (Kuznets 1948a, b). I also came to respect the mission of the NBER as originally conceived by Mitchell. This was to build a broad quantitative base of economic measures that would further the “cumulation of economic knowledge” (Burns 1948; Kuznets 1947, 33–4). In my personal experience, the value of this philosophy is demonstrated by the fact that, in economic history, the most often cited work of mine is still my estimates of state income done in the 1950s as part of the Kuznets–Thomas project.

But these notions about the importance of economic measurement ran strongly against the tide of mainstream economics. I can still remember the shock and sense of betrayal I felt one day when economic theorist George Stigler, himself an NBER staff member and eventual Nobel laureate, opined that a doctoral dissertation providing historical estimates of the U.S. balance of payments was not appropriate for a Columbia University Ph.D. in economics….

But economics alone is not enough -- and this is why I am a reluctant economist. We cannot comprehend the world about us without knowledge of the facts and insights provided by the other social sciences. Economics is a starting point, but only a starting point, in the application of social science to the world’s problems. As I reflect on my own philosophy, instilled by Kuznets and molded by experience, it boils down to a few words -- it is good to be an economist, it is better to be a social scientist.


"The Story of a Reluctant Economist” in Michael Szenberg and Lall Ramrattan (eds.), Reflections of Eminent Economists.

Why Isn't the Whole World Developed?

"The Economics of Happiness,” Daedalus, 2004

Some Blog coverage of writings by Easterlin; Aplia Econ Blog, Environmental Economics, Canadian Scorecard Weblog, Economics Unbound, The Fly Bottle, Happiness and Public Policy

On Kuznets; from Econlib, Biographical Memoir of Kuznets

*Somebody needs to expand the Wikipedia article on Kuznets. I also checked the Google Book search and Amazon search inside the book on The Reluctant Economist; it seems to me that the Amazon is the better one, with Google being more restricted.

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