Thanks to George Lee for passing on this material: A set of parliamentary answers to enquiries about the economics qualifications of civil servants in various Irish government departments.
These answers confirm that there is almost no PhD-level training in economics in the Irish Civil Service: There are two economists in the Department of Finance with doctorates and that may be about the limit of it (many of the other departments don’t seem to keep precise records about these things.) In any case, whatever the true number is, it’s very low.
Let me start with the obvious observation that an academic economist would make. The absence of a reasonable number of well-trained economists is very unfortunate and it is legitimate to ask both whether this absence has played some role in the poor economic policies of the past and whether addressing this absence should be on the government’s agenda.
I suspect that most people from outside Ireland who come across these figures would have a similar reaction. This being Ireland, however, one must be extremely careful—in fact, one must be essentially apologetic—if one wishes to make these points. There are two main reasons for this.
The first reason this position provokes such, em, ire in Ireland is that inverted academic snobbery is very influential in this country. Academics who suggest there may be a need for increased technical expertise in economics are suspected of looking to feather their own caps, get their nose in some trough or some other such analogy for selfish or self-promoting behaviour.
Indeed, some would go further than this—suggesting that giving people extra exposure to the dreaded “ivory tower” somehow rots their brains and renders them useless as “practical economists”. Trust me, in other countries, Brian Lenihan’s “national mediocrity” swipe at academic economists (“lots of scared academics secretly support me …”) would have been seen as extremely strange but in Ireland it was pretty standard fare.
In truth, there is no great benefit to individual Irish academics from the Irish civil service recruiting PhD graduates. Most Irish people that get PhDs in economics have traditionally obtained these qualifications abroad and this is a pattern that will most likely continue. And I can assure people that we have no performance-related pay clauses linking salaries to the number of PhD graduates we produce.
No, the reason we tend to recommend recruiting PhD-trained economists is that lots of important economic policy questions are, like, difficult. It’s easy to jump to incorrect conclusions unless one has a good training in various statistical methods and an understanding of useful theories to help interpret the relevant patterns. (For instance, newspaper columnists who regularly cite the Laffer curve as a basic tenet of economics are promoting a “finding” that is rejected under almost all conditions in empirical studies.)
When it comes to practical economics, analysis of data is key. However, the application of statistical methods to economic data—econometrics—is something that undergraduate economic students learn very little of. MA students get a bit more grounding, usually undertaking their first substantive piece of econometric work under the supervision of an academic.
I don’t wish to undermine the value of an MA in economics—it teaches many useful skills and can be a launching pad for lots of different careers, including professional economist. However, in 2010, it is generally accepted across the world that PhD-level training (giving students an additional few years to hone their econometric and other skills) is the standard that organisations such as governments and think-tanks require of someone looking to fill a professional economist position.
The second reason the observation about PhD economists goes down so badly in some quarters is that this is just scratching the surface of a far greater issue in relation to the Irish civil service, namely its dedication to the “generalist” idea of the civil servant. According to this viewpoint, government officials should move around from department to department, gradually accruing different skills and that this prepares them better to be “well rounded” civil servants. This tends to rule out the idea of both being a civil servant and also having a career path dedicated to a specialist career such as being an economist. Recruitment policies that largely rule out hiring from outside for middle-ranking positions also act to keep those with specialist skills on the outside.
I’m sure the generalists have a point in relation to civil servants working in standard public administration roles. However, I would also guess that the public would be better served if the existing system worked in combination with a more flexible system aimed at getting specialists into the civil service and offering them career paths that involved building on the skills they spent years acquiring.
Finally, before people write in to say that lots of other countries are suffering fiscal and banking crises despite their civil services being stuffed with economists, I would be the first to admit the economists have a limited understanding of lots of important issues—that’s why we still do research, because there’s still so much left to understand better. So more and better-trained economists are not a panacea. I’m only arguing against the position that less and worse-trained economists is the way to go.
If you still don’t think this stuff isn’t controversial, wait for the comments.