Economists as Public Intellectuals

23 May 2008 at 8:46 am 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

I haven’t read Judge Posner’s 2002 book Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline but I hear it’s one of his more interesting efforts. (Actually I haven’t read most of Posner’s books, but you can’t blame me — he writes ’em faster than I can read ’em.) Posner’s thesis, as is obvious from the title, is that today’s public intellectuals are a far cry from those of yore, and he blames this (in part) on the increasing professionalism of the Academy and its inward-looking, highly technical but ultimately ephemeral research. (I remember an economist colleague a few years back being chided, by his senior peers, for having published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, thus indicating his lack of commitment to “serious” scholarship.)

The current issue of Foreign Policy contains a list of today’s top 100 public intellectuals. Shockingly, none of your esteemed O&M bloggers made the list. Economics, however, is its most represented academic discipline. The list includes ten academic economists, if I counted correctly: Paul Collier (Oxford), Esther Duflo (MIT), William Easterly (NYU), Paul Krugman (Princeton), Steve Levitt (Chicago), Nouriel Roubini (NYU), Jeff Sachs (Columbia), Amartya Sen (Harvard), Michael Spence (Harvard), and Larry Summers (unemployed). Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist whose work has been extremely influential in economics, is also there, along with several think-tank economists or journalist-economists. A few observations:

  • No one from management or busisness administration makes the list, though some of these gurus are plausible candidates. Perhaps “influential business thinker” and “public intellectual” are disjoint sets in the minds of people who edit magazines like Foreign Policy.
  • Six of the ten are development economists. Only one, Larry Summers, is a macroeconomist. Remember when Keynes, Hayek, Friedman, and Samuelson were household names? Today development is the hot field.
  • The list includes one academic sociologist, Slavoj Zizek. Oh, and one pop sociologist, Malcolm Gladwell (don’t blame me, that’s what FP calls him). Robert Putnam, a political scientist often mistaken for a sociologist, gets his props too. More fodder for the orgtheory crew.

See also: The Role of Economic Analysis in Public Policy and Econo-Bloggers and the Public Good.

Update: Michael Spence isn’t a development economist but has been working in that area, serving most recently as Chair of the World Bank’s Commission on Growth and Development. Bill Easterly characterizes the Commissions newly released report thusly: “After two years of work by the commission of 21 world leaders and experts, an 11-member working group, 300 academic experts, 12 workshops, 13 consultations, and a budget of $4m, the experts’ answer to the question of how to attain high growth was roughly: we do not know, but trust experts to figure it out.”

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Guan Yang  |  27 May 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Larry Summers has a title, an office, and a salary. If that makes someone unemployed, then sign me up.

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