How I Became an Economist

As people leave high school they gradually adopt one or more identifiers to announce to the world who they are. This requires that they first 86 their temporary “cool” labels they stuck on themselves as kids. As we nose into the big world those labels become embarrassing even though they served as a training experience in stinking badges.

In theory we are all individuals, assembling facts and ideas randomly on an equal basis. But in practice most people find that they need some kind of organizing structure to arrange a selection of basic assumptions and certified facts. Religions and political parties perform this chore in an off-the-shelf prepackaged way – no thinking necessary, just add money.

As young adults we go through 2 or 3 early life changes. We find our chosen grown up tribe doesn’t work for us anymore. The tribe may say you don’t work for them anymore either. Unlike couples who grow apart these are more mental than emotional changes. The tribe can be a skill, a profession, or a philosophy which pays no bills whatsoever. I have no idea why I chose my partners or why the relationships failed but I know exactly how I came to identify myself primarily as an economist.

Between 9 and 14 I grew up on a farm. This instilled in me a desire for something as real as a living environment that could explain everything but was more abstract and less desperate than farm life. I decided I wanted to be in nature but couldn’t depend on it. After high school I dropped a professional program and then a trade school. They were not who I was. I didn’t have to soldier through since I had no financial obligations.

I started trying to figure out the world piecemeal. It seemed natural to hang out around people who also were trying to figure things out. So I joined a minor political party and went back to college for an education. I settled on the economics department. It worked in well with the political activities. Although I adopted the political byline and slogans for several years, the party topped out and pooped out early in the revelation game.

After the first year I settled in on the Wednesday night classes. This seemed like a great deal. You got your 3 hour 3 unit class by showing up once a week. But the best part was what happened after class as this was the end of the day for the professors and students alike in those classes.

I was more personally motivated, as opposed to professionally motivated or unmotivated, than the average student. This made me more interesting to the night econ profs who also tended to be the graduate committee. After a few classes I was being invited to their Wednesday night after class ritual. When the last student was out the door they would make a final cruise by their offices and head over to the 24 hour Carrows. Time to unwind with some small talk. But not just any small talk. This was the small talk of economists.

I began to notice variations and discrepancies between points in their lectures and the free flowing analysis and off the cuff remarks in these exchanges. I of course was allowed to participate and was even encouraged to comment. Unlike a formal class, the subjects were wider ranging and the opinions sharper. And unlike discussions based on personal values and prejudices this was reasoning and usually empirical reasoning.
Concepts and methods tepidly covered in class bounded forward across the diners’ table.

I’m certain that if anyone was listening at nearby tables they would have thought we were madmen or foreigners out for the night. After all, normal people don’t use the word “marginal” in so many ways about so many things. Did I become an economist or discover I was an economist? I seemed to be at home among people who can take extreme positions while agreeing and disagreeing to some extent with opposing views. Normal people lose patience when they can’t quickly tell which side someone is on. For them, “I see some problems here” is not a substitute for “I disagree.”

Most of my other conversations tended to be insipid or acrimonious. In contrast, the forays at Carrows left me refreshed and enlightened. But more important I felt I was becoming impossible to be manipulated by friends and enemies alike. Becoming an economist created a bedrock that allowed me to build other solid identifiers for myself. This is in spite of never working a job that called for any economic thinking.

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