When Prof Frank Barry opened his address to the Dublin Economics Workshop in Wexford on Friday, talking about the amount of flak professional economists like himself were subject to these days, particularly from angry lay people, we counted down the time before he’d mention the State’s principal economist basher, President Michael D Higgins.
In a speech at Áras an Uachtaráin in April, Higgins criticised economists for their “obsession” with growth and made several cutting comments about economists and the teaching of the subject in universities. Unsurprisingly, it went down like a lead balloon with practitioners here. It wasn’t the first time the President has attacked economists. One might even be led to suspect he has it in for them.
Perhaps fearful of being caught in the cross hairs of the State’s first citizen, whose appetite for controversy seems only to grow with age (he launched a broadside against the UN this week), Barry failed to mention his profession’s greatest domestic tormentor.
Fitting the economist stereotype, the Trinity Business School academic went on a long meandering trip through the world of economics, quoting liberally from the canon – Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Stiglitz were mentioned – in a seeming attempt to prove that not all economists are right-wing market ideologues as some of those angry lay folk maintain.
And also that the profession was studying – with academic rigour – the world and society the way it was and not necessarily the way it ought to be.
Of course, Barry was addressing a growing chorus of criticism against orthodox economics which critics such as Higgins claim relies too much on classical theories of market equilibriums and rationality while ignoring a plurality of other approaches, from climate to feminism.
The nearest Barry came to mentioning Higgins directly was when he claimed that some of the aforementioned “other approaches” seemingly ignored by mainstream economics were covered by other academic disciplines including “sociology”.
Did he realise Higgins is a sociologist or was that just his subconscious talking? The President graduated from Indiana University in the US in the 1960s with a master’s degree in sociology and taught it at University College Galway before becoming a full-time politician.