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Virtues for Economists

Summary:
IntroductionThere is much debate these days about “meritocracy.” One problem with the 21st Century American version of meritocracy is that by “merit” it means only intelligence and other dimensions of talent and skill. It gives short shrift to whether someone is good or not. As one consequence of this version of meritocracy that pays little attention to virtue, our public policy does a lot more to make people like those chosen by the meritocracy feel good about themselves and have the opportunities they value than it does to help those whom the meritocrats don’t care much about—such as poor people they might actually have to deal with personally,

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Virtues for Economists

Introduction

There is much debate these days about “meritocracy.” One problem with the 21st Century American version of meritocracy is that by “merit” it means only intelligence and other dimensions of talent and skill. It gives short shrift to whether someone is good or not. As one consequence of this version of meritocracy that pays little attention to virtue, our public policy does a lot more to make people like those chosen by the meritocracy feel good about themselves and have the opportunities they value than it does to help those whom the meritocrats don’t care much about—such as poor people they might actually have to deal with personally, or poor people who don’t otherwise belong to a category of concern for the meritocrat. (On “don’t otherwise belong to a category of concern,” I am thinking here particularly of the folks Anne Case and Angus Deaton focus on in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.) Another example is my complaints in “False Advertising for College is Pretty Much the Norm” against college and university administrators chosen according to such narrow meritocratic criteria. But there are many, many other bad consequences of non-virtuous meritocrats.

In this post, let me spell out what I consider key virtues for economists. I’ll focus on virtues for economists as economists, and even more specifically on virtues for their role as researchers. (Virtues for economists for their role as teachers deserve their own future post.) I am only addressing here those who feel some calling to research. Some economists feel other callings as primary.

There are key virtues in each of the three stages of research: (A) preparing the ground; (B) planting; then (C) irrigating, weeding and harvesting.

Preparing the Ground

  1. Hone Your Skills and Knowledge: Although having good genes for being smart is not itself a virtue, working hard to gain skills and knowledge in order to be able to do a good job is a virtue. If you are an Economics PhD, unless you have suffered a terrible health shock, buckling down to decades of additional reading, study, deep thought and attempts at application will be enough to give you formidable powers to do good in the world.

  2. Master Time Management: Some of you have many heavy responsibilities. But it is unlikely that you can’t find 5 hours a week to do research. I am far from being an expert on time management, but many excellent books exist. One well-known book on this topic that I recommend is Stephen Covey’s book First Things First (with A. Roger Merrill and Rebeca Merrill).

Virtues for Economists

3. Avoid Getting Discouraged: Research can be difficult. It might make you feel stupid. Some parts of it are boring—such as doing the 15th revision. Other parts are frustrating, as when a statistical estimation fails to converge or when a beautiful mathematical conjecture turns out to be false (as you may see from a simple counterexample that you missed early on). You may feel a version of imposter syndrome, thinking “Who am I to try to say something on this topic, when some economists much smarter than I am have addressed it?”

Discouragement and other forms of disillusionment of economists with economic research are so common that I started a program to help. Take a look at these posts:

Of course, a program like this can also help economists who are doing great with their research. Take a look!

Planting

4. Care: To choose important topics, tap into your values. What do you care deeply about? Two key guides to the importance of topics are contribution to social welfare and scientific beauty. Don’t think you need to be limited to topics that have traditionally been the purview of economics. Economists have great skills for addressing most topics in the social sciences and even great skills for addressing some topics in the natural sciences, such as topics in nutrition. On the breadth of what I think economists should be doing, and my toddling forays into nutrition (which may some day lead to formal research on my part) see:

5. Cultivate Good Judgement: In addition to judging the contribution to social welfare or scientific beauty of a project, good judgement about research projects requires making good estimates of the cost of doing a research project. Is it easy, hard or pretty much impossible? You won’t always know just how hard a project is, and you don’t want to give up too easily, but you also don’t want to underestimate the cost in a foreseeable way.

Of course, social welfare impact depends not only on the potential social welfare contribution of a project, but also on how much it is likely to affect the work of other economists (and of other scientists and policy-makers). It is good to think about what other researchers need in order to do their work better. There is nothing wrong with choosing to do something ahead of its time that may not have much impact until half a century from now, but you should be aware that you are making that choice.

It is easy to get help with good judgement. Most of you will know someone you respect who will be happy to tell you their judgement about the potential impact of a research project and how difficult and costly it is likely to be. But you don’t have to rely on one person. It is easy to poll 10 economists you know about how important a project seems and how hard it is likely to be.

Note that judging cost requires introspecting about your own preferences as well as counting the hours (and dollars). If doing the research would be as fun as playing a videogame, the cost could be low even if it will take a huge number of hours!

6. Don’t Be Too Careerist: There are strong social pressures in Economics to do research that will advance your career. As an advisor, I tell my students to go along with those social pressures in choosing their job market paper and in what they do while putting together a tenurable record if they have a tenure-track job. But you need to keep your soul so that you can return to choosing projects based on deeper considerations after you get tenure—or are otherwise unlikely to be fired. Some people may need to worry about being able to move. But do you really want to do trendy, but unimportant research just to get a bit higher salary?

Remember also that many of the most renowned economists did research that was very much unappreciated when they first did it. Being “careerist” is often a version of putting the short run over the long run—even if you were only out for money and fame. And you aren’t just out for money and fame!

(Economists don’t get all that famous anyway. Just try asking your non-economist friends and family to name five economists they don’t know personally. They will almost all have a really tough time. But within the level of fame that economists get, economists who have taken risks often have some degree of triumph even in their own lifetimes.)

Irrigating, Weeding and Harvesting

7. Seek the Truth: In empirical or mathematical investigations, first try to figure out what you really believe based on the data and theoretical results. That means being responsive to the data and theoretical results and thinking through what they mean—at first without any regard to your audience.

8. Tell the Truth. Do your best to communicate what you learned from doing the research. You probably spent a lot of time thinking about it. Try to get across that understanding. That will require distinguishing your most important results from less important results that you have fallen in love with. This is where you should think a lot about your audience.

After I got tenured, I was given a document with excerpts from some of the letters evaluating me. I remember most the excerpt saying “Miles often overestimates his audience.” In other words, my papers and presentations were sometime impenetrable and hard to understand. One of my problems in my career is that I have a (faulty) gut feeling that it is bad form to act as if I know a lot more than other economists. But each of you, like me, in your particular area of research do, in fact know a lot more than the vast majority of other economists. They don’t expect themselves to know everything about your area of research, so they don’t feel bad about knowing less than you do on that topic. Why shouldn’t you face the truth that you know a lot more than others on your specific topic and will need to hold their hand and lead them along for them to understand what you learned?

9. tell the truth. You have an overall perspective on your research and want to get across that vision. But you don’t have the right to lie or deceive about the small-t truths—specific facts or statistical analyses or detailed interpretation of results—even when those very specific truths run contrary to the capital-T Truth you want to get across. You are not infallible. You need to give readers the raw material to construct their own arguments based on your data or results, even if their arguments run counter to the Truth as you see it.

There are a set of common statistical practices that to me constitute the moral equivalent of a lie—unless they are made in genuine, abject ignorance. (p-hacking/not reporting all the tries you made to get something with a nominal 5% level of significance is first and foremost among these practices.) Don’t commit these crimes, wittingly or unwittingly. To better avoid them, see:

You have a duty to know what ways of using statistics could mislead a reader, and avoid them.

In public advocacy based on yours and other economists’/scientists’ research results, the burden shifts somewhat. In your own research, your truthful and full reporting is the only way anyone can know key facts, short of getting your data and analyzing it themselves. At the other extreme, if there is a fact everyone knows that you don’t acknowledge in your op-ed, you may look stupid, but you aren’t deceiving anyone. Or if there is a fact your opponents in a public debate are loudly trumpeting, your not mentioning it won’t be depriving everyone of that information. But you aren’t a lawyer. If you make an argument that is vitiated by a counterargument you are well aware of that your opponents in the debate have never mentioned before, you should probably mention that counterargument yourself. To do otherwise is to pay too little respect to the truth. And to the extent that your readers are in informational bubbles and are only likely to see your side of the argument, your responsibility for informing them of counterarguments goes up.

Conclusion

The word “virtue” makes me think of Stoicism. Ideas from the philosophical school of Stoicism are, in fact, an aid to cultivating virtue. Although the daily bits get somewhat repetitive over time, I highly recommend subscribing to the Daily Stoic. It’s free. Ryan Holiday is behind the Daily Stoic. I like his books, too. Beyond that, the ways I know to help economists strive to be better as well as smarter are in the Positive Intelligence training I give, as detailed in the blog posts I linked to above and will again here:

Don’t Miss These Posts Related to Positive Mental Health and Maintaining One’s Moral Compass:

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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