Should any Tom, Dick, or Harry be allowed to call themselves an economist?

Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. “Dietician” is the legally protected term. “Dietician” is like “dentist”, and “nutritionist” is like “tooth-i-ologist. – Dara Ó Briain.

In a recent initiative the Irish Economic Association have established Guiding Principles for Members. Included is the principle that “Members shall practice within the limits of their competence and only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical field involved.” This is to be welcomed. However, I believe that economists need to go further.

Anyone can call themselves an economist. Unlike accountants and barristers, there is no commonly accepted Institute of Certified Economists. Newspaper articles sometimes refer to the opinions of an ‘economist’ regardless of their knowledge. In some cases people claim to have a PhD in economics, despite their PhD having been awarded by a faculty other than economics.

I would prefer that economists follow the model of disciplines such as law or accountancy. Although economists often disagree on policy prescriptions, I believe it would be easy to establish a set of criteria in order to become a ‘chartered economist’ or called to the ‘economic’ bar. For example, an economist may not find the framework of perfect competition to be particularly useful, but to be an economist it is necessary to understand this framework, at the very least so as to critique those that use it excessively. An economist should have a grounding in statistics and econometric techniques. An economist should have a knowledge of formal economic models (and be able to criticise those who use them inappropriately). The criteria would need to be updated from time to time.

Similar to chartered accountants and barristers, it would not be necessary to have studied an economics degree to become a certified economist (people may have studied a related subject like business studies, sociology, or even biology). However, it would be necessary to pass a set of exams showing the person understood and could apply the various statistical and economic concepts. There could also be a qualification such as ‘Economic Technician’, similar to accounting technician, for those who use economics regularly, but at a less advanced level. Third level institutions could liaise with an ‘Association of Certified Economists’ to allow their student to sit such exams as part of their studies (similar to accountancy courses).

Does such certification merely serve to stifle debate? I do not think so. For example geographers and town planners have a hugely important role (and in my opinion, a more important role than economists have) in setting housing policy. Economists themselves often comment on areas such as health policy, without medical training. It would allow the public to know whether the opinions they hear come from an economist (and they could decide for themselves whether or not they value the opinions of economists in any case).

If anything, I think it would help prevent broad social issues, such as housing, from being given an excessively narrow economic focus.