Some well-known economists suggest that a good economist should act like an engineer, a surgeon, a dentist, or even a plumber. These metaphors are useful in helping economists reflect the nature of economics and their role in society. But which is the most sensible one? This paper argues that economists should be playing all these roles and more, because economics is not a single entity, and each entity has separate goals, methods, and boundaries. To take this multiplicity of roles into account, this paper argues that in addition to the traditional boundary that delineates the disciplinary domain of economics against other sciences, an overarching boundary between economic science and applied policy needs to be recognized. It then examines Esther Duflo’s “economist as plumber” metaphor and suggests that a better metaphor for Duflo’s purpose would be “general contractor,” a metaphor that, if accepted, would suggest radical change in training applied policy economists.


Su, H-C. & Colander, D. (2021). 'The Economist as Scientist, Engineer, or Plumber?'. Journal of the History of Economic Thought. Vol: 43 Issue: 2. pp. 297-312. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1053837220000231
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