Letter to the editor: Keynes dentists and humility

Sir,

At the RES conference plenary GES session this year, Samantha Beckett, Deputy Head of the GES, quoted one of Keynes’s most famous sentences (from Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, 1930).

If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!

Most people quote it as though Keynes was suggesting that economists should be more routine and workman-like. Reading the full essay suggests that’s not quite what he meant.

Keynes pointed out that with the power of compound interest, by 2030 the UK would be eight times better off than it was at the time of his writing. He therefore predicted the end of scarcity and the need to only work 15 hours per week. With no scarcity, economic problems would vanish. That would mean that economics would become a specialised subject, for it would only be needed in industries where scarcity persisted.

That is the context in which he used the ‘dentists’ description, for he described them as specialists. And indeed, economics has become more specialised, not because scarcity has vanished, but in the same way that medical discoveries have led to the division of labour in medicine. So the full quote is this:

It [the economic problem of scarcity] should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!

I am all for economists being humble and competent, but let’s celebrate Keynes’ vision of us being specialists too!

Jonathan Haskel,
Imperial College Business School

London.

From issue no. 166, July 2014 p.22

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