Tim Harford’s books are always engaging even as he covers topics that many don’t find the most stimulating. His latest book gives a lively introduction to macroeconomics. He notes how unique thinking can be powerful. So what makes your thinking different?
The Phillips’ Curve
In this Harford is obviously enjoying himself when he describes the character of Bill Phillips. When I was first taught economics, in the 1980s, the Phillips’ curve still dominated the thinking of my school teachers. While the curve itself is long defunct as a policy tool Phillips undoubtedly had a significant impact on his profession. Maybe this impact came from the fact he was a unique character. Harford calls him the “Indiana Jones of Economics” — with his own way of thinking.
Bill Phillips had “..worked in a gold mine, hunted crocodiles, busked with a violin (he was self-taught), rode the Trans-Siberian Railway and was arrested by the Japanese and accused of spying.”(Harford, 2014, page xvii-xviii).
An Economics Professor Without An Economics Background
After a horrific time in a Japanese POW camp, Phillips returned to study sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE). Instead of studying, he made a model of the national economy, MONIAC. This contraption, which seemed to occupy the border between genius and madness, got him a job teaching macroeconomics at the LSE.
Within a decade he had been made a professor,…. not bad for a man with no honors degree and no economics qualifications of any kind.Harford, 2014, page xxii
What Makes Your Thinking Different?
My guess is that it is precisely because Bill Phillips thought differently that made him so useful. Only a person with his experiences could have put together the MONIAC. We all sometimes look at resumes and ignore those whose backgrounds don’t fit what we expect. This is a shame because often the best ideas come from those with novel perspectives. (Many of the worst ideas also come from novel perspectives too. Still, you often have to test many bad ideas to uncover a good one.)
I wish academics would encourage thinking that is so fresh there is a hint of strangeness to it. The world, and academic publishing, will be so much more exciting if we embrace exciting new ideas. Individually we should ask ourselves the same questions that we ask about brands. What can we offer that is unique and valuable? Everyone has something only they can offer. Perhaps only you can build the next MONIAC?
Read: Tim Harford (2014) The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run – or Ruin – An Economy, Riverhead books