From The Economist, 24 December 2016
IN 1924 John Maynard Keynes, who invented macroeconomics, used a biographical essay about his mentor Alfred Marshall to muse on the qualities of a good economist.
He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought…No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.
Such paragons were hard to come by, Keynes sighed: “Good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds.” But there can have been no doubt in his mind that the likeliest place to find them roosting was among the sandstone crenellations of Cambridge colleges. The Cambridge economics department, founded by Marshall and home to Keynes, was at that time the world’s leading school of economics. It not only taught bright young people from around the empire. It also made them into what its faculty thought economists should be: technically accomplished purveyors of policy advice, dispassionate but engaged.
Not every economist can be all those things, nor could they ever. But if the old aspiration to try and be so is lost, so is part of Marshall’s original dream of economists seeking not merely to apply their ideas in a worldly way, but to produce both better ideas and, in the end, a better world.