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My advice to an aspiring economist — don’t be an economist

Commentary from David Bollier and Lars Syll

A new world, fast-overtaking us, needs to be seen and explained on its own terms
Extract from an Evonomics article by David Bollier [1]

“ And still, amidst all this tumult, many economists are disinclined to rethink the foundations of their field. It reminds me of the closing joke in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall. A guy has a crazy brother who thinks he is a chicken. The doctor asks, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy replies, ‘I would, but I need the eggs’.

“ Why is the free-market discourse so perdurable despite so many social, ecological, and political realities that call its logic and the categories of its thought into question? Because the whole field, despite its flaws, is functional enough and entrenched. It needs the eggs, the certitude of quantitative analysis aping the hard sciences, the credentialed expertise always in demand by powerful institutions, the prestige that comes with proximity to power.

“ But behind these factors, there is a new world a-bornin’ that economics needs to engage with and understand. There are brilliant economic thinkers like Kate Raworth, inventor of ‘dough- nut economics’ framework; the writings of degrowth economist Jason Hickel and of the late anthropologist David Graeber; the thinkers associated with the web journal Real World Economics; and a number of student associations clamouring for both new economic paradigms and pedagogy.

Beyond my reading the right things, I also find that it helps a lot to hang out with the right crowd, listen to serious new voices, and bring my full humanity to the questions of the moment.

“ Economists of all ages – but especially the younger ones who have the suppleness and imagination to grow – need to pay attention to these outsider voices. There is a new world that is fast-overtaking us, and it needs to be seen and explained on its own terms. “

Comments by Lars Syll [2]

A science that doesn’t self-reflect on its own history and ask important methodological and science-theoretical quest- ions about its own activity, is a science in dire straits.

Already back in 1991, a commission chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, and Joseph Stiglitz, reported from their own experience “that it is an underemphasis on the ‘linkages’ that should exist between tools, both theory and econometrics, and existing ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,” and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.”

And in conclusion, they wrote “graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues”.

Not much is different today. Economics — and economics education — is still in dire need of a remake.

More and more young students of economics want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. They want something other than the same old mainstream catechism. They don’t want to be force-fed with useless and harmfully irrelevant mainstream theories and models.


  2. Lars Syll blog, 1 Feb 2021

David Bollier is Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, and author of Think Like a Commoner and co-editor of Patterns of Commoning. He blogs at

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