Wanted: the right sort of genius

1 December 2010

The language of innovation, uncertainty, optimality and risk, not wearisome political rhetoric and spurious certainty.

Sententiously if we must, let us admit it. The people who inhabit and inspirit our region of industry are people who exert themselves to give the world the power it needs to keep going and growing. Other people pursue other careers elsewhere and likewise. But unpleasant surprises have lain in wait. The world all these people thought they were keeping going has been grinding, if not to a halt, at any rate into a confusion of fits and starts. The stages of confusion give rise to such well merited epithets as ‘slump’ and ‘depression’. There must be somebody, or some bodies, to blame.

As the slump has proceeded accusers have assigned various degrees of responsibility to governmental regulators, bankers, financiers, economists, politicians and, for all I know, witches and werewolves too. Among the thinking and talkative classes a favourite target for finger-pointers has been the community of specialists in what has, ever more disparagingly, been called ‘the dismal science’ of economics: and of those practitioners themselves, some have cried ‘mea culpa’. Not a few have questioned some principles accepted in their studies and have also queried some practices inspired by their theorisers.

There have been individuals so mortified by doubt that they have called for a reconstruction of their discipline along the lines of knowledge systems deemed more successful. A flurry of letters to the editor of The Financial Times, an internationally respected newspaper, not long ago discussed just such a reconstitution of the dismal science.

The correspondence was prompted by a feature article pondering how appropriate it was to consider the appointment of an academic economist to lead the European Central Bank. The retort from a reader, published as a letter to the editor, was a challenge to the idea that any economist be appointed to run a central bank. ‘Judging by the publications of some renowned economists’, averred the writer, ‘economics is a discipline in need of drastic reform that provides no dependable guidance on any key issue’. The situation could be dealt with by declaring economics a failing discipline and having it taken over by a successful one such as physics. He had a list of physicists, this critic concluded helpfully, ‘available to lead the dismal scientists’.

Epistles followed from others who did not all agree with the choice of physicists for salvation. Two professors put in a plea for ‘an eminent philosopher rather than a physicist . . . to take charge of economics’. Interestingly, only one of the pair professed philosophy: the other’s chair was titled Finance and International Business.

There was a participant in the exchanges who did detect a serious idea ‘hiding’ behind the suggestion that a physicist assume command – namely that ‘we should demand greater intellectual rigour when shaping and communicating economic policy’. In this earnest vein the correspondent called for ‘the language of innovation, uncertainty, optimality and risk, not wearisome political rhetoric and claims of spurious certainty’.

Totally disapproving a physicist, however, was a contributor who pointed out that physicists, too, engaged in ‘tremendous debates’, particularly about theory. He thought that this was apparent from even a casual look at string theory. Were one to use the logic of a physicist champion who had disparaged economists’ disagreements, one could riposte, therefore, with the inquiry: ‘should economists take over the running of Cern?’

Psychiatry and other callings got their plugs in as well until, eventually, there was a rallying cry from within the embattled profession. ‘Before someone suggests yet another discipline, please let us consider the possibility that economics sort itself out’, appealed a well placed academic, who indicated some of what could be done.

But I have not heard about anybody who spoke up for engineering.

I am reminded of what used to be a popular definition of an engineer. (You may call it a boast.) I had better state this in modern translation for readers too young or insufficiently anglophone to recognise it. An engineer is somebody who can make or do for metallic small change what anybody else needs folding money to accomplish. Such a clearly ‘economics’ qualification would seem to a naïve observer to make an engineer a good candidate for economics supremo, but I don’t myself know of any engineer (or physicist) who would fancy the job.

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