When you think of a rockstar, what comes to your mind?
I will tell you what comes to mine: Bono, of the U2 fame, never mind their last album, which sank without a trace. Bono’s unmissable crooning to a song like ‘City of Blinding lights’ with a hundred lights shining on him and the band, while thousands of fans go wild with the (relatively) up close and personal experience of watching U2 perform live, is what technically makes a rockstar.
Cut to the world of academia, business, economics and policy.
There are often no floodlights in the picture, no leather jackets (not always), no crazy throngs and nothing particularly soul-stirring. Yet, one section of individuals working in these domains are called almost regularly called rockstars: the economists. Not all economists, of course, but some. And do note, you never hear of a rockstar CEO or CFO. Occasionally, there is a mention of a rockstar fund manager or investment banker. But these terms are generally few and far between in such cases. It might have something to do with the fact that finance as an industry does not quit hold the enviable hot-spot it did, say, one decade ago. But that is digressing from the point.
The point being: That economists and economics have come to acquire a status that, quite frankly from the perspective of someone who practices it, quite befuddling. A simple Google search on ‘Rockstar Economist’ yields an unending number of search pages, with various economists being described as rockstars.
These rockstar economists include the likes of Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, who shot to global fame with his book Capital in the 21st Century, Yanis Varoufakis, also an academic and former Finance Minister of Greece’s Syriza party who is known for his uncompromising refusal for Greece to take on more EU loans to fund its debt, Bangladesh’s microfinance pioneer and Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus and of course, Raghuram Rajan, of the University of Chicago, and more recently the outgoing governor of the RBI.
These economists have a single commonality: They have all been instrumental in giving fresh direction to global thought, most often by virtue of years of their research and other professional work. Also, a number of them continue to put themselves out there, reaching out to vast audiences and in the process acquiring a strong following.
But it would be a pure myth to think that being an economist otherwise, is anything close to being a ‘rockstar’. For one, it can be a fairly dull as well as dry profession to anyone who does not truly enjoy economics as it is. It entails dealing on an almost daily basis with massive amounts of data, keeping up with new research (not to mention the news and opinion) as well as developing your own ideas (many of which, might be wild goose chases) into actionable researches. And a lot of this work happens in the dark, so to speak. Only when something meaningful is done, can it be talked about.
That said, though, even when there is not a lot of independent/personal research to speak of, economists do find themselves spoken and written of/about. And for this, the credit goes wholly to the increasingly knowledgeable audiences and readers. Take monetary policy, for instance. Outside of banking and finance, it is hard to understand why the policy generates the amount of interest that it generates in a country like India. It does not directly affect anyone’s regular life until its impact trickles into the banking system. Or take the instance of the fine print of the Union Budget, which gets hotly debated every year.
At the end of the day, the star is no star without a critical mass of people being aware and appreciative of their work. It might be a mixed blessing, but the profession is probably better off for it, than not.