The Price of Arrogance

The ongoing economic crisis has stirred up quite bit of debate among economists. In addition, it seems that the current students as well as the lay public show significant interest in the subject. One just needs to visit blogs of some of the well-known economists and find hundreds of comments to their posts. But, often times, these posts cross the boundaries of respectful conduct. Moreover, there is evidence that some of these economists simply erase the substantial objections to their posts while leaving the superficial ones. While this is unfortunate, it also reveals the weaknesses of some individuals and institutions and the strengths of others.

In order to illuminate the significance of this development, I will present a glimpse of the dark side of the debates among some of the “highly ranked” economists. This will show that it is no coincidence that the curious youngsters are looking for alternatives.

Battles With(out) Boundaries

Economists are often perceived as lacking tact or modesty in expressing their ideas. For example, if we look at the relative number of times the attribute arrogant was directly attached to practitioners of different professions on the World Wide Web, we can see that economists are at the top of the list. Table 1 shows one such comparison where the number of hits in Google searches for “arrogant X”, relative to the number of hits for “X”, where X denotes different professions.

Table 1. Numbers of times the attribute arrogant was attached to practitioners of different professions in Google search finds (December 12, 2010)[ref]An identical data search technique was performed in August of this year as and it produced similar results.[/ref]

It is interesting to note that the phrase “arrogant economist” is more frequent (both in absolute and relative terms) than the same phrase in the context of the other 9 selected professions.

The difference is most striking (but not surprising) between the respective numbers for economists and labourers, where the attribute arrogant is over 800 times more likely, in relative terms (and over 2,500 times in absolute terms), to be attached to an economist than to a labourer.

Plumbers were perceived arrogant somewhat more frequently than labourers but still quite unfrequently relative to other occupations. It seems that people whose livelihood depends on solving other people’s concrete problems, where it is quite easy to recognize bad solutions, cannot afford arrogance as a business strategy. After all, it is hard to persuade anyone that you fixed his or her sink if it is still leaking or that you built them a good house if cracks open in its foundation after a month of use. Claiming that the situation would have been even worse without your service simply does not cut it. Curiously enough, many economists seem to believe in this strategy.

When it comes to other academics, sociologists and chemists are also perceived to be quite humble in comparison with economists while biologists and physicists were seen as arrogant more frequently but still about half as frequently compared to economists. Mathematicians, historians and psychologists are at the lower end of this arrogance sale but not as low as sociologists and chemists. While the explanation for these discrepancies may not be as clear-cut as in the case of labourers and plumbers, it is still apparent that the reputation of the practitioners of economics is not what one would call – enviable.

If we go further and read some actual texts, we can see that some economists, sometimes even of the “highest rank,” often try to belittle or ridicule those they don’t agree with. Just to mention a few examples, recently a well-known economist, in his blog, used a demeaning cartoonish onomatopoeia to describe the sounding of what he thought would be the response of some economists to his criticisms.

Another well-known economist characterized an article by one of his colleagues as “huffing and puffing”. Another economist, less known, but still a university professor, said that he  laughed until tears were coming out of his eyes when he read a piece of a particular economist’s writing (which was not intended to be funny). The actual names are not important here, since the purpose of these examples is to illustrate a possible tendency rather than to point a finger at specific persons.[ref]However, an extremely interested reader is free to contact the author to request the web links to the actual texts.[/ref]

I had a first-hand taste of these exchanges of fire as well. Recently, I read a blog post of a well-known professor teaching at a prestigious U.S. university. It contained claims about what this professor thought some economists that adhere to a certain school of thought would claim about certain economic phenomena. Then he took each unreferenced statement and proclaimed it either true or false. Most of them were deemed false.

After the first wave of disappointment by the demeaning tone this professor used to address other economists, I realized that the first question I would like to ask was – where, when and by whom were these critiqued statements made. Thus, I acted accordingly and wrote a comment that pointed out that those quoted/paraphrased statements were unreferenced.

After about 15 minutes, my comment disappeared. I thought that it might have been a glitch on the website or some similar technology-related problem. Thus, I posted the same comment again. But, similar to the previous one, it was gone in about 10 minutes.

Now I started to realize that someone might be erasing these comments intentionally. I decided to check so I posted a similar comment again, with some additional explanations why I think referencing literature sources is important. This time I saved the web page in the PDF format, partly to persuade myself that I wasn’t hallucinating (and partly to be able to prove my claims if anyone decides to question them). The reader can probably guess what happened after 15 minutes – yes, the comment disappeared again.

Later, through electronic communication with some other blog participants, I found out that I wasn’t the only one experiencing these disappearances. It turned out that most of the balanced comments were erased while those filled with more emotions than reasoning were left.

In the end, I was left with a strange feeling that could be summed up in the following line of though – if this kind of conduct is nothing out of ordinary for educational institutions and individuals of this stature, what can we expect elsewhere? Or, maybe a resonating name is not all that counts; maybe it sometimes doesn’t matter at all.

One might then ask: how do we recognize the people that we value and want to learn from in this world of mixed signals? This kind of questioning is probably not alien to many current or potential future students of economics. The next section argues that that the most sensible answer to this question is – integrity.

Building Authority on Integrity

Even though some people attribute a negative meaning to the term authority in the sense that it is a threat to freedom, there is a kind of authority that is not inconsistent with personal liberty. This is the importance that most of us attribute to some people voluntarily, based on the qualities that they possess. These are the people we admire and want to learn from.

In any area of human productive activity, it is important for young people to find something to admire in their elders, may it be family, teachers, or friends.  Specifically, in the field of economics, it is important because the enthusiasm of the present and future students and practitioners depends greatly on how they view the current practitioners (i.e., professors).

It is my general impression that one of the key determinants of this view is how the current practitioners approach the situations when their authority is questioned. If they approach them with calmness, stability, honesty and modesty, students generally appreciate that and see it as a sign of personal and professional maturity and strength. This shows that the teacher respects the student’s will to learn. As Ralph Waldo Emerson nicely put it, “Men are respectable only as they respect.”[ref]Emerson, R. W., and Cabot, J. E. 1884. Lectures and biographical sketches. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co.[/ref]

Ultimately, the ideas offered by these professors will meet a fertile soil in their students. This does not, however, imply that the students will automatically accept these ideas as a dogma. Rather, it means that such ideas have a greater chance of being further analyzed, developed and scrutinized, as opposed to those that will simply be discarded or mechanically reiterated.

For example, this value attached to personal integrity is what compelled many curious students to explore the works of economists never mentioned in conventional textbooks. These works provide ideas that were never scientifically refuted but simply ignored as “unpopular”.[ref]Buchanan, J. M. 1969. Cost and Choice: An Inquiry in Economic Theory, Vol. 6 of the Collected Works.[/ref]

However, if our senior colleagues approach the challenge in a way that make us wonder whether they actually know what they are doing, or if it gives us the impression that they are trying to hide something, or worse, that they are simply disregarding us as persons not worthy of an honest answer (as in my comment-disappearing experience), this will likely produce an undesirable effect – distrust. We all know that distrust is not a solid material on which to build authority.

Conclusion

The discomforting level of inappropriate discourse among some economists is unfortunate. But, this also reveals the weaknesses of some individuals and institutions and the strengths of others. One of the important strengths of a good teacher is to recognize that young people look not only for knowledge but also for figures of authority. The key step in building genuine authority based on trust is to respect the opponent, as well as giving appropriate space to those watching the “battle” of ideas.[ref]I think that F. A. Hayek provided one of the great examples of how this is is to be done.[/ref] The fact that people with these qualities seem to be harder to find among economists compared to other professions makes them even more valuable. Those that choose arrogance may not immediately see its price but it does exist – in the form of lost trust of their up and coming colleagues.

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