Taking up the discipline of economics appears to be a perfectly normal thing to do. How could it not be? Many thousands join its ranks every year. New recruits find out that a profusion of economists makes up an apparently powerful discipline that easily prevails in academic status over other social sciences such as sociology, psychology and anthropology. They will find out that economics is the only social science to have its own Nobel Prize, and learn that economists are well represented in government, occupy high-ranking offices such as cabinet ministers and presidents, and assume powerful positions as CEOs and CFOs of major corporations. Economists are also regularly featured as experts in the media. With such size and regard, it must be perfectly normal. Or so it seems.
Economics appears to be a vital discipline, too, because it promises to help understand important things: Why do some countries' economies work better than others? How do we cure unemployment and world poverty? How does money work? Jan Tinbergen, a Dutch economist who won the first Nobel Prize for econometrics, was my economic hero. He devoted his work to the causes of social justice and world peace. Tinbergen was not only an idealist, but also a serious scientist. As a young man, I set out to do the same. What reward, what benefit, could be greater than having the ability to show politicians the economic means by which they could work towards greater justice for all?
Even without such high-mindedness, economics demands attention because of its permeation of daily life. It is a major part of any country's daily newspapers and dictates the goings-on of politicians. If we are told not to worry about a lack of economic growth, we are warned of inflation. Government deficits, recessions, wage increases, productivity figures, degrees of consumer confidence — these are always in the news, and affect our ordinary, day-to-day lives.
There is no escape from economics. It confronts all of us, all the time, whether we want to see it or not. The artist who professes to loathe anything about that niggling thing called "money" has to figure out how to stay alive. Vincent van Gogh relied on the generosity of family; other artists apply for grants. Both are economic decisions. When artists chat among themselves about the best place to find the finest brushes, they are practicing economics. Nurses working in a public hospital about to be privatized are confronted by economics, however far from the fray they feel. Parents regularly ascribe an economic value to chores done by their children. There is, simply, no escaping it.
And yet people are good at escaping economists and ignoring their economics.