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Some curmudgeonly remarks about economists and other academicians

- August 27, 2008


The other day I happened upon the presidential address that Simon N. Patten delivered a century ago at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association (“The Making of Economic Literature,” American Economic Association Quarterly 10 (April 1909), pp. 1-14). Patten held some strong opinions about what constituted good writing as well as good economics, and he did not hesitate to heap scorn on his fellow economists or academicians in general. He seems to have been something of a curmudgeon – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Here are some passages from his address.

bq. I recall many young men who gained standing by an essay of not more than thirty pages. They won recognition by clear thought and a sharply defined thesis. Today they launch forth in a three hundred page pamphlet that tires the reader with its massive collection of facts. …No one seems willing to stop short of the German standard by which prestige is gained through bulky volumes that fill yards of library shelves. …A three hundred page thesis not only does not fit a man to be an economist: it really incapacitates him for work.

bq. To think clearly is to be altruistic. Honors and rewards come only to those who by pen or speech pass along to the public the books and essays it will not read. …In reality our books are of less consequence than caps and gowns, and I doubt not that universities would profit if they used the money now spent on printing useless books and journals in giving more color and grace to public anniversaries.

bq. I hold that the better the economist the clearer, shorter, and more precise are his utterances …A book is merely the trail along which its author has gone in his search for clear expression and sharp analysis. This is of great importance to the author, but of little consequence to the reader.

And my favorite:

bq. The moralist and political scientist naturally cultivate fluency because their contact with the public is mainly through spoken words. The historian cultivates elegance and can hardly get started before the third volume, and the sociologist is quite as bad a model because he starts with Adam and seldom gets past Moses.

They just don’t make presidential addresses like that any more.

Has the passage of time dulled Patten’s points?