Thursday, July 29, 2010

From the Mailbag...

A reader asks:
I’ve been asking myself these late months, what to do to become a self-taught economist? What do I need? What books, what manuals should I read? Is it even possible? Should I just forget about it or seek and admission in a real economics PhD program. I took many classes in economics (International economics, introductory micro and macroeconomics, advanced macroeconomics, international finance etc).
I think this very much depends on what your goal is. Do you just want to know about economics and the current situation? Then read the blogs -- Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Matt Yglesias, Tim Duy, Econobrowser, Rortybomb, Chris Blattman, Calculated Risk... These blogs mention other books, articles, and blogs which are also good to read. You could also try reading academic papers, but you'll need the math and so it'll be a huge time investment and you'll only understand economics slightly better, so I think you'd need to ask yourself why you are doing it. One thing you might do is download syllabi on what field you want to learn more about, and then read through the papers. It was really when I did this for my own field that I realized that my field has major, major problems. I've seen syllabi from highly touted programs which didn't include a single decent paper.


  1. Actually the best place for you to start would be Daron Acemoglu's book "Introduction to Modern Economic Growth".
    Sorry T.V. but i had to post that :P

    Blogs are a good start but even these require some training in economics. And unfortunately economics is all about the math now. Downloading syllabi might help but even then you will go through a lot of junk until you finally read something that will make you feel like you learned something. Of course most papers use a lot of math even though they don't have to just b/c that's what the profession requires...

    Probably you first need to decide what field is of interest and then search but i believe it will be time consuming and you may be disappointed...

    The rant of an aspiring economist from Greece is now over... :P

  2. First, you must decide whether you want to have the training of a modern economist or whether you would rather understand economics. Since the guys who have been running the economics departments since about 1973 have a stunning track record of being catastrophically wrong, you may want to read the guys who practiced economics during the Great Prosperity.

    Start with J.K.Galbraith's "Age of Uncertainty."
    It is a companion book to a TV series that ran on BBC / PBS so you know it's accessible.

    Then you should read Robert Heilbruner's "The Worldly Philosophers."

    This is an excellent primer on how the ideas of political economy evolved over time.

    Then you must understand the thinking that informed the New Deal reforms. Of course, the fountain is Thorstein Veblen. But Veblen is quite difficult to read--it is turn-of-the-century English written by someone who learned English second. But if you can do it, read "Theory of the Leisure Class" first
    and then "Instinct of Workmanship."

    Both books are incredible. But if that is too tough, try Clarence Ayres' "The Nature of the Relationship between Ethics and Economics."
    Ayres was THE interpreter of Veblen, so if Veblen is too deep, he will fill in.

    And getting back to Galbraith,the times almost demand you read his "The Great Crash of 1929."
    And his "New Industrial State" is a GREAT description of the world the Keynesians helped create by 1967.

    Modern economists will tell you that theirs is a science that is defined by high-end math. They have been disastrously wrong about that. Economics grew out of the study of moral philosophy. Anyone who neglects to understand that is just going to be wrong--you can actually bet on it.

  3. Thanks to both of you for the great suggestions!

    -Anonymous -- How could you post Acemoglu's book here? lol... I'll admit it's fine if you want to see what a mainstream/conservative view of some topic within economics, but the thing is just seriously misguided.

    -Jonathan -- Wonderful suggestions. There's a few on there I haven't read yet. Embarrassing...


  4. -T.V. -- I had to post acemoglu - the growth class i attended was based on it :P Guess since MIT uses it, it's almost mandatory for a greek university... Maybe you should make another post about it and we could chat/rant there

    Jonathan's suggestions are really really good. I would start with Heilbroner - enjoyable read. Never read Gailbrath - will get to it. Veblen is also a must - and trust me, your vocabulary will def benefit from reading him.