In Which the Author Explains the Likely Origin of the Idea for a Professional Code of Ethics Among Economists

Michael Giberson

For more economists caught in the act of navel gazing, check out The Economist‘s forum on the question of whether economists need a professional code of ethics.

If you want some background, the urge for a code of ethics came about something like this:

Since the end of 2008, economists have been professionally embarrassed by the financial crisis and associated recession, and didn’t people expect us to have answers, and by-the-way why didn’t we predict this in advance and prevent it from happening and stuff.  So now economists are having low esteem which is bad for us, and we know it is bad which makes us feel worse.  Anyway, us economists were all sitting around feeling sorry for our sorry state, and down in the dumps.

Suddenly one of us economists jumps up and says, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” And then another one jumps up and says, “Yeah, we’ve gotta have a great show, with a million laughs… and color… and a lot of lights to make it sparkle. And songs – wonderful songs. And after we get the people in that hall, we’ve gotta start em in laughing right away.”

And then all of us economists were getting excited and exuberant and feeling our animal spirits again until one guy calls out, “But what are we gonna call our show?” And for a moment we was stumped, but then  came the answer from the crowd, ringing  forth clear as the “The Opening BellSM” at the start of trading at the NYSE: “A professional code of ethics for economists.”

So there you have it. And you’ve got to admit, it is a title that will start em laughing right away.

(Among views expressed in the forum, I favor the Lant Pritchett and Giles Saint-Paul’s responses.)

2 thoughts on “In Which the Author Explains the Likely Origin of the Idea for a Professional Code of Ethics Among Economists

  1. I gotta agree with you completely, Mike, the idea of a ‘code of ethics’ for economists is totally laughable.

    However, I did read Giles Saint-Paul’s response and he said:

    “The truth is that economic theory is underdetermined—there are too many topics on which we do not know what is going on and equally good models have opposite predictions, and empirical work is of little help because we cannot insulate the phenomenon we are interest [sic] in.”

    But then, he titled his post: “Economics needs to maintain rigorous competition between ideas”. I wonder if you could tell us all when that might actually start to happen ?

    PS: “People respond to incentives”. I think that’s a basic economic truth, isn’t it ?

  2. I tend to believe that most of those “too many topics on which we do not know …” are in macroeconomics and that things are better in microeconomics, but that belief may just reflect my prejudices. Still, it seems to me that the body of microeconomic understanding is growing, and that a climate of open access and competition between ideas is much more important to that continued growth than a climate of transparency.

    Obviously ethical behavior is extremely valuable in research, but the most important parts of research ethics have much more to do with how you treat the data you use than who funded your research.

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