Yes, it’s an odd question. But it gets raised surprisingly often. Here are two recent examples:

Example 1: Brian Jones (St. John’s Telegram) writes that ”œStephen Harper is the economist prime minister who is not, was not and has never been an economist. »

In response, David Akin asks the Twitterverse…

Akin

(And in the responses that follow we learn that commentator Andrew Coyne does not call himself an economist, despite having an MA in economics.)

Example 2: A few months ago, I posted a list of people who are active on Twitter from the broader Canadian economics community. Several people responded that I should remove so and so from the list because they aren’t a « real » economist, since they don’t have an economics degree.

The « but you’re not an economist » line gets thrown around a lot. Its purpose is simple: discredit the target and imply that their views should be ignored. In most cases, politicians are targeted, but sometimes it’s others who work outside of university economics departments who comment publicly on the economy and public policy.

So let’s try to provide some clarity by answering a few Frequently Asked Questions on this topic:

Question 1: Does having an economics degree make you an economist?

No. Plenty of people study economics at school (at the BA, MA and even PhD level). They leave, move on to other pursuits and rarely apply the skills they’ve learned. These people aren’t economists and would likely reject that label.

Alternatively, some people study plenty of economics at school, pass hundreds of econ exams " which, if we’re being honest, are often thinly-veiled math exams " yet they have great difficulty applying their economics thinking beyond their narrow specialization to broader contemporary policy issues. These people can call themselves economists, but they’re not the problematic cases.

Question 2: Can studying economic issues without a formal economics degree make you an economist? 

Sometimes. There are examples from a range of other fields including: business; public administration; political science; math; physics; computer science; history; etc. Certainly some non-economists by training become economists in practice. It really depends on how they do what they do. I think that economics is best viewed as applying a particular analytical approach to a topic rather than the topic itself.

Question 3: What should we call traditionally-trained economists who don’t study traditional economics topics?

They’re economists too. For instance, Steven Levitt at the University of Chicago use an economic lens to study things unconventional topics like sumo wrestling, prostitution, and abortion. He’s a pretty big deal and has won major awards in the discipline for his research and publishes in economics’ most respected journals. And many other economists are branching out into other fields.

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These answers suggest that economics is more about the how than the what. By extension, this means that practicing economists are simply those people who thoughtfully apply an economic approach. They use some rigor to analyze data; they apply economic theories to guide their analyses and support their policy recommendations " whether or not they’ve been formally trained with an econ degree isn’t the only factor to consider.


Bonus Question: Why don’t all the real economists get their together and create a properly-licensed profession, like dentists? Wouldn’t this prevent charlatans from claiming to be economists in the media?

Licensing is hard. It faces some practical problems, like mobilizing a large group, and how would you certify that someone is an economist? What information is essential knowledge?  Moreover, we already have a decentralized system in place that asks people lots of skill-testing questions at universities and awards economics degrees " but as we’ve discussed above, that’s an imperfect indicator of someone’s economic competence or interest.

However, I’m sympathetic to this desire. I’m also annoyed by people who aren’t economists but who try to play them in the media. Unfortunately there’s not much we can do about this.

And perhaps we don’t need to do much about it either. People create their reputations and build or lose their professional credibility over time with their track records. Those people who know (the real economists), know when those who don’t know (the charlatans) don’t know what they’re talking about. Now if only our media " who work under tight deadlines on complex issues " could tell the difference between the two…