You might know the words, but do you get the music?

Back in March I wrote this:

“Some of the most clever economists I have encountered are actually not formally educated economists. In fact a number of Nobel Prize winners in Economics are not formally educated economists. One of my big heroes David Friedman is not formally educated as an economist, but to me he is certainly an economist – one of the greatest around. Another example is Gordon Tullock who was trained as a lawyer, but he is certainly an economist – in fact to me Gordon Tullock is one of the most clever economists of his generation and it is a complete mystery to me that he has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. The way I perceive people’s skills as economists has nothing to do with their formal education. To me Economics is not an education. Economics is a state of mind.

Therefore, you can easily be an economist without having a formal education as an economist. As a consequence there are also people who have been able to attain a formal title as an economist without reaching that higher state of mind that a real economist has. I have unfortunately also encountered many of this kind of “economists” – economists by title, but not in mind. Many of these people are unfortunately high ranking policy makers.”

For years I have been running around telling people that “Economics is not an education. Economics is a state of mind” and I have always believed that I have come up with a great saying. However, it turned out – as with most of my views – that I in some way got it from Milton Friedman. Over the weekend I was re-reading a couple of chapters in Milton’s and Rose’s  memoirs “Two Lucky People”. On page 543 I stumbled on this quote from Milton:

“I have long believed that a feeling for economics is something people are born with rather acquire through education. Many highly intelligent and even highly trained professional economists knows the words but don’t get the music. On the other hand, people with little or no training in economics may have an intuitive feeling for it.”

It be frank I don’t remember ever reading that before, but it is very close to what I said in March. But it is getting even more interesting when you have a look at some comments David Friedman was so kind to make on my post back in March:

“My father’s standard example of your point was Leo Szilard, a physicist who was also at Chicago. Apparently Szilard would come into my father’s office with ideas in economics. Generally they were things economists had worked out much earlier–but they were right….I don’t know of anything my father wrote about Szilard–I’m going by memory, but I’m almost certain I have the right physicist.”

Well David, your father did indeed write about Szilard. This is the footnote (7) to the Milton quote above:

“Another example is my former University of Chicago colleague Leo Szilard, the great physicist and chemist who first discovered the principle of the  chain reaction, and indeed, patented it. He was repeatedly reinventing economic theorems, and getting them right” 

I think this is a very good example of why I have in my book on Friedman called him a “pragmatic revolutionary”. Friedman makes you think. He so to speak installs a certain way of thinking in your brain once you get exposed  to him. It happened to me back in the mid-1980s. Obvious David got the exposure from birth.

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