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“Well, Look Peter, I’m Actually NOT An Economist” – What Stephen Harper Didn’t Say

September 8th, 2015

Monday night, the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge  made the mistake of referring to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as an economist: “Given your track record on analysis … and you’re not alone as an economist ….

The Prime Minister is many things, but one thing he certainly is not is “an economist.” And it is a serious mistake to grant Harper (or anyone in a position of such power and influence) the authority, gravitas and political advantage that this label can confer.

Credentials and labels are open to interpretation, of course.

But in the world of economics, there are three conditions commonly accepted as entry requirements before someone can wear the label.

These requirements are nowhere formally laid out as individual “absolute minimums.”

And there is, without question, some mutual interplay between them. You don’t need to get 10 out of 10 on all three tests: a high mark on one can cover for a low mark on another. (In economist-talk, this is called “complementarity.”)

But anyone who calls himself an economist needs to score high somewhere on this list of qualifications.

Harper fails completely.

Let’s have a closer look.

1. By far the most common litmus test is a PhD in economics. The P.M. does not have one. Harper has a master’s degree from the University of Calgary, a much more basic level of academic training and expertise.

2. The second is having, over a career, written and published economic work that has been accepted in peer-reviewed publications and conferences in the professional world of economics.

While it is true that economics has changed tremendously in recent years and now embraces a much broader understanding of how economies actually work – – consider, for example, the rise of behavioural economics which embraces fascinating research in human psychology – you need to have made an appearance somewhere in the big leagues of this profession, PhD or not.  Harper has never set foot in this world.

(Has Harper ever been invited to an academic conference to present a paper?)

3. Finally, you don’t get to call yourself an economist unless sometime during your working life, you have held down a job that by any reasonably accepted standards of that profession, clearly requires training in advanced economics as a precondition for doing the work in question.

This means the work demands the skills of an economist, not necessarily the academic credentials. I have two degrees in engineering, for example, but never having worked as one, I would never call myself an engineer.

Harper has never remotely worked in such a position – either in his brief career in the oil industry (where, as best can be uncovered, he was a mail clerk and some sort of computer technician) or in his subsequent political career, which he began 30 years ago.

While it might be a good thing if Canadian Prime Ministers had to be economists, there has never been such a requirement and over the century and a half of Canada’s life as a functioning democracy, no one has ever suggested this as a necessary qualification for leading the country.

So somewhere on the above litmus tests, an economist needs to have scored a few points.

Harper scores zero.

This is not nit-picking.

Canada’s Prime Minister has the overarching power and leading role to shape the economic health and growth of this country. He or she earns that power by winning a national political contest through selling their expertise to voters.

Journalists – who consistently call Harper an economist, happily abetted by Harper himself and those around him in declining to offer corrections – need to be extraordinarily careful not to cloak him in a role which many voters understandably think gives him a clear advantage in governing the country.

Harper may be fascinated by economics. He may see his track record in guiding the Canadian economy as the defining measure of success of his political career.

But Stephen Harper is not an economist.

And it’s a mistake to grant him the credibility of being called one, especially during an election to determine the future of Canada.

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