Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The"Lived Experience" of an Economist

On Thursday, February 12, I talked about preparing to speak about interdisciplinary research to a nursing research conference on Saturday February 14. The presentation went well. Prior to my presentation, I had the opportunity to walk through the posters that some of the nursing researchers had prepared to demonstrate their work. Several of the posters discussed particular “lived experiences”, for example, “the lived experience” of post-partum depression.

The concept of a lived experience is an interesting one to think about with respect to a profession. The other day on a radio interview with a physician and novelist, the guest talked about how he was always a physician even when he was writing. Part of his “lived experience” was that the identity of “physician” stuck with him no matter what.

My personal experience suggests that the “lived experience” of an economist is also something that permeates a person’s entire life. For example, a priest at my parish is the chair of the Department of Economics at a local Jesuit college (Loyola College). He is the only priest I have ever heard talk about marginal utility in a homily.

My own life is characterized by some “tell tale signs of having the lived experience of an economist”. While I sometimes think that people should “just cooperate because it is a good thin” (a very non-economic notion), I generally think about tradeoffs that individuals and organizations face; I using the phrase “on the one hand and on the other hand”; I think about the strategic choices that people might make based on their incentives; and I think about ways to give my children incentives for good behavior. It is not to say that others who are not economists use none of these. In contrast, it is to say that this list always come to mind for me. Even after 13 post-doctoral years, the 5 years of constant training continues to have a huge influence on my life. Still, I do question the economic logic every day. That is also a healthy characteristic of the lived experience of an economist who is not satisfied that his field has the answers but believes that with perseverance his field and its ideas may be able to continue to improve the quality of the explanations of the way the world works. Certainly, we can all agree that we need better explanations after recent events that followed from bad predictions.

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