Paul Krugman received his Nobel Prize for putting into mathematical form insights which older economists say already exited in economics in non-mathematized presentations. I’m not a historian of geographical economics, so I can’t evaluate the claims of these older economists. But I am a student of status games in the profession of economics, and no status game is more important to the economists than the status game of mathematics. All accounts of the profession agree that economists are obsessed by the “who is smartest” game, a game that is mostly adjudicated by the game of who is best and brightest at cranking out the latest and most difficult mathematics. In other words, the “math jocks” and “rocket scientsts” are routinely judged the “smartest guys in the faculty room” or among the graduate students on the job market.
But the dirty little secret of economics is that the “rocket scientists” of the economics profession are comparative math dullards next to the mathematicians and physical scientists in the hard sciences. Paul Krugman recently confirmed this assessment in his own case on his blog:
This caught my eye: Kyoshi Ito, a mathematician, has died. Ito studied random motion, and his work has played a key role in finance theory — and even in some of my own work. I’m not much of a mathematician, tending to pick up no more technique than I need — Avinash Dixit liked to make fun of the way I’d write down the basic Wiener process, then say “whatever that means” — but this was really useful stuff.
In large measure, economists and their profession itself depend for their status on their perceived skill at aping the technical skills of the empirical sciences, most particularly the skill of doing mathematics. But the public needs to know that this skill level is as tinker toy building next to the construction of a rocket ship. And while rocket ships make it to the moon, economist are more apt to produce mathematical constructions serving as justification for policies capable of leading to massive financial crises –meet Ben Bernanke, smartest man in the room.