In North America…academic economists as public intellectuals…have declined in recent decades. Beginning in the 1970s, PhD students in economics understood that, in order to be successful in their discipline, it was much better for them to be good problem-solvers and mathematicians than to have a broad knowledge of economic facts and a thorough knowledge of the economic literature…The rise of formalism, widespread ignorance of economic history and economic facts, and the absence of a broader culture in economics and other social sciences would not seem to constitute a good preparation for effective intervention in public life…

Public intellectuals seem to be fewer among Canadian than among American economists. I see two reasons for this. The first is that scientific recognition and faculty promotion in recent decades have come increasingly from refereed publications in international journals of high standing. However, only one such journal is Canadian — the Canadian Journal of Economics. The majority of leading journals are American. They have little interest in applied research on the Canadian economy. Many among new generations of young Canadian research economists believe that investing in Canadian studies is a loss of time from the standpoint of career advancement.

The second reason that there are fewer Canadian than American economists who are public intellectuals is that Canadian institutions do not facilitate exchanges between universities and government to the same extent as American institutions. In the United States, world-class academics such as Galbraith, Arrow, Okun, Tobin, Solow, Eckstein, Nordhaus, Feldstein, Boskin, Stiglitz, Yellen, Frankel, Blinder, Summers, Diamond, Mankiw, Bernanke and Romer are admired not only for their scientific achievements but for the major contributions they have made to public policy while they held government jobs.

In other words, the formal training toward the PhD degree, the dynamics of international reputation building and limited opportunities for exchanges between universities and government may deter many Canadian research economists from investing in knowledge of the Canadian economy and developing an interest in Canadian public policy…

The key point to remember is that nature abhors a vacuum. If too few research economists get involved in public policy discussions, their knowledge is not made widely available. This then leaves the floor open for ideologues and charlatans to take over debates and increases the risk that bad policy decisions are the outcome. We are made worse off as a nation. I am not denying here that there are biases of various kinds among economists. I am just saying that if more of them — from all persuasions — get involved, the probability that better policy decisions will ensue will be greater.

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Pierre Fortin
Pierre Fortin is emeritus professor of economics at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and past president of the Canadian Economics Association. He specializes in macroeconomic and social policies. 

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